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The Rebuild

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June 15, 2042

Cologne, Germany

 

The bowels of the RheinEnergie Stadion, known for FIFA purposes as the catchy Cologne Stadion, stood Tom Stephens, a fist bump with Chris Martin, his ever reliant number ten.

“Two number tens today, Chrissy; two number tens.” Chris calmly patted his captain on the shoulder, took his place behind the goalkeeper. Wales shrunk in the presence of the almighty Brazil, despite being, on average, the taller.

Mark chewed on his fingernails as a long ball was pumped into the Wales box thirteen minutes in. A sliced clearance away for a corner. The drums of the Brazilian end pounded away. Little Brazil in Deutschland was finding its voice.

“Mark.” A hand clasped tightly onto Mark’s shoulder. To his left: George Turley. Foam out of Mark’s mouth greeted his aggressor.

“Don’t you fu—” George held his palms up.

“Scouting mission. We’re not here to hurt you—again—we want peace.” A glance towards a turned head four rows down, Scott Turley, told him otherwise.

Mark wrestled from the grip of George, returning up the flights of stairs to a box of his former Real Madrid chairman. A Welsh expectation turned Mark’s head. He was stood in the aisle.

Tom was powering beyond the last two Brazilian defenders on the halfway line, Chris Martin joined him in the Brazil half. Two Welsh against a terrified Brazilian goalkeeper.

He had no other method but to escape his penalty area, rushing to meet Tom. Tom slid the ball to Martin.

1-0 to Wales.

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June 27, 2042

Leipzig, Germany

 

Tom Stephens’ Wales had cruised through to the round of 16 in Stuttgart the previous day with a 1-0 win over South Korea. They topped the group after accumulating seven points in a group which they also drew 1-1 against Bulgaria.

Mark Stephens was in Leipzig on business the very next day: England were playing Senegal in a group game, having already qualified, and Stephens needed some new additions to his Redditch squad.

The two players he had come to look at were left on the bench and were outshined by a Jack Evans who had scored England’s third hat-trick at a World Cup after Sir Geoff Hurst in 1966 against West Germany and Marcus Rashford in 2026 against Ghana.

England sailed through with maximum points, a 3-0 win over Senegal.

Who would be in Leipzig but one former wife by the name of Janice Stephens on a scouting mission of her own—scouting for Mark.

She was heavily covered by two bodyguards in the form of George and Scott Turley sat ten rows behind them in the director’s boxes. They didn’t speak or get any closer or further away—just made their presence known.

“I want to do business with you.” Janice said on multiple occasions to no rebuttal from Mark. She was willing to play the long game, though.

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July 5, 2042

Munich, Germany

 

Wales’ World Cup journey ended with a fight in the quarter finals in Berlin. In what was Tom Stephens’ 100th cap, he netted his 22nd international goal as Argentina and Wales traded first half penalties.

As the second half climaxed, a later sickener for Wales. Juan Carlos Frascone slipped the ball past two defenders and the goalkeeper with one solid movement. Argentina had sneaked through into the semi finals.

Surprisingly enough, Mark didn’t enjoy the company of the Turleys, Bachlund or Janice—even his mother didn’t turn up.

The World Cup wasn’t over for Mark, though, as his continued following of England continued the following day in Munich. The quarter final between Portugal and England.

Mark had barely gotten his seat by the time by the time Portugal had roared into a 3-0 lead. The quarter final was already done and dusted. The stadium became more relaxed, enter Janice’s entourage.

They—her, Bachlund and the Turleys—the four empty seats next to her.

“Mark. I told you I was here in Germany for business, shall we finally get down to it?” Janice prodded Mark as the three gentlemen kept their eyes firmly on the football in front of them.

“I’m here with Redditch, not with anybody else. No business is taking place.” Mark adamantly muttered.

“I know about James Price.” Janice removed her glare away from Mark for one moment, just in time for Dave Rock’s goal to make it 3-1 on 37 minutes.

“What about James Price?” Mark quizzically pushed Janice for an answer.

“You killed him,” Janice whispered into his face, “and made it look like suicide. I know.” Mark’s face dropped.

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July 13, 2042

Berlin, Germany

 

“Neun: Kwadwo Amamoo! Elf: Federico Amadei und vierzehn Rodrigo Antoniooooooooooooooo!” Instictive cheers from the Italian fans inside the Olympiastadion were soon quelled by worried the lack of their number ten and top scorer for the tournament: Alfonso Ciardi.

Mark put his hands in his face, ashamed.

Hanging around the press box prior to the announcement, Mark had heard whispers of the tournament’s four-goal Ciardi going down pre-match with a mystery illness, a la Ronaldo in 1998.

The only difference being, Ciardi didn’t make the starting line up in the end.

Ciardi netted a desperate equalizer against Sweden in an inauspicious start to Italy’s World Cup campaign in a 2-2 draw in Hamburg. This was followed by an even more dramatic stoppage time winner in the following game in Dusseldorf, a 2-1 win over Argentina.

Ciardi wouldn’t find the scoresheet in the next three matches in a group stage win over New Zealand, a penalty victory over Brazil in the last sixteen or in an extra time quarter final triumph against Ivory Coast.

He did play every single minute and assisted the opener against Brazil, scoring in the shootout.

Ciardi, fresh from a league and cup double win in his first season at Barcelona, had his finest hour in a World Cup semi-final against Portugal, in the same arena his colleagues lined up against Spain in today.

A header in the tenth minute and a second, a free kick, just after the hour sealed back to back finals for Italy. It was their tenth World Cup final, tying a record with Germany, bidding to equal their record of six World Cup trophies.

The previous morning: an agitated Mark Stephens tried to make himself invisible in the hotel that he shared with the Italian team just outside of Berlin. The Turleys were the opposite, brash and stood out like a sore thumb.

Janice sat at the table in the hotel’s foyer alongside Mark.

“I’ll get him over here, Turleys are handling the money and the valuables, you’re here as bait.” Janice blueprinted the entire plan, to perfection, for the next few hours.

Janice lured him into the table where, Alfonso Ciardi, obviously a fan of Mark’s, agreed to have five minutes of his time with the former multiple time Champions League winner.

“I’d love to have you at Barcelona!” The excitable Ciardi launched into a hug with Mark. There was his get out clause, live in Catalonia, away from the Turleys, Janice—just go off the grid.

Instead, Mark offered him an uneasy smile.

Later he was offered £11.4 million to miss the World Cup final.

Beyond that, Spain edged Italy out of the World Cup thanks to a lonely Antoni Albert strike.

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December 11, 2042

 

It was a chaotic summer in a number of respects for Mark. Hoping he had repaid his debt to Janice at the World Cup, he set about stocking his Redditch team with Premier League quality footballers.

With that, the likes of Kamva Modise, Veselin Vladinov, Adrian Mead and Dale Smith all left the club. Youth prevailed at Redditch. Jack Horncastle was out on his own as the oldest signing of the summer, a 29 centre half from Leicester. A quartet of teenagers, 19 year old goalkeeper Padraig Harvey, 18-year old right wing Liam Colquhoun of Arsenal joined for £21 million as well as freebie 19-year old centre half Sven Leonhardt and 18-year old left wing Gianmarco Mangianello from VfL Bochum—the marquee signing he needed.

Josh Neale and Steve Gill, two full backs from Swansea followed for a combined £11 million fee as well as Max Doe, a 22-year old attacking midfielder from Bournemouth. The second biggest fee Redditch shelled out was £10 million for Bradley Lapslie, the next Steven Gerrard according to his former employers Tottenham Hotspur.

Quite why they would sell the next Steven Gerrard for £10 million was beyond Mark. Nonetheless, Redditch began the season in fine form, if you look beyond the Community Shield penalty shootout hiccup against Manchester United. Sunderland were beaten and draws were made against Hull and at home to Manchester City before a 6-0 thumping of Southampton.

Redditch’s first European evening, courtesy of Mark Stephens, was won in the final ten minutes by two old Redditch signings: one from Justin Woodrow and two quickfire Mick Pickering strikes saw Redditch conquer Dynamo Kiev 4-1. Successive 2-2 draws at Stoke and QPR had a League Cup triumph over the former wedged in between.

Dave Rock broke Redditch’s hearts and Redditch’s longest unbeaten run in their short, 15-month Premier League history as Manchester United snuck a 1-0 win in Redditch.

Another Europa League win, this time at home to Genk was followed by successive defeats to Sporting Lisbon which left an away day in Belgium crucial to Redditch’s continued hopes in Europe. Arsenal and Crystal Palace were tearing strips out of Redditch at the time, with wins at Swansea in the League Cup and away triumphs against Burnley, Liverpool and Watford, giving the reds chance for some momentum.

Goals from Josh Neale and Gianmarco Mangianello settled the nerves at Genk in late November. Another new addition, and perhaps the most impressive of which, Bradley Lapslie netted a third from the spot, almost sealing qualification into the last 32.

All that was needed was either a point at home to Dynamo Kiev or a Sporting Lisbon win at home to Genk. In the end, both happened. Second half goals from Leonhardt and Pickering turned the game at Redditch on its head, ensuring a 2-2 draw whilst Sporting Lisbon tore Genk apart 5-0 in Portugal.

Premier League momentum had suffered slightly due to the Thursday-Sunday-Thursday set up, having lost at Ewood Park and drawn late on with Chelsea at home.

What was adding to the already crammed schedule was Redditch’s inability to finish games off, especially in the League Cup. Having gone ahead at home to Arsenal, goals from Leonardo and Miljan Radanovic left Arsenal in the driving seat in the quarter final. Adding to frustrations was a second booking from Justin Woodrow. Max Doe equalized thirteen minutes time prompting extra time and penalties.

Before penalties could turn up, Lee James snatched the winner, and what a winning goal it was. Mangianello bust a gut sprinting 90 yards with the ball on a two-man counter attack, leaving Lee James on the back post to head home a deep cross. The final four was achieved. Redditch were on course to add the second domestic cup to their silverware.

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April 23, 2043

 

December was rich for Redditch. A hammering of Middlesbrough was followed by scrappy away wins against West Ham and Sheffield Wednesday and a masterclass at home to Tottenham.

Spurs took the lead before two goals on the counter attack and a penalty clawed back a superb 3-1 win. West Brom were swept aside with ease on Boxing Day at the Hawthorns, 3-0.

As 2042 transgressed into 2043, Redditch’s chances of a top four finish and potential Champions League football became even more possible. A loss at Sunderland quashed those chances slightly.

Dreams were temporarily dented after FA Cup progression into the final sixteen with wins at Leicester City and Rochdale and the form of champions in between.

An away draw at Manchester City, saved by a late equalizer from Gianmarco Mangianello, was the only league blemish as Hull, Southampton and Stoke were beaten. Liverpool pipped Redditch to the League Cup final 2-1 on aggregate as the hectic period came to an end in February with a 1-0 win over QPR.

By then it was time for a reunion between Tom and Mark Stephens at Old Trafford. Redditch’s tormentor-in-chief last October, Dave Rock came close early on, striking the post. On the counter attack, Mangianello hit the woodwork. The game was just that, end to end.

A win for Redditch would take them to within four points of the top 4 and six points of league leaders Manchester City whilst a home win would draw United level with City at the top on 55 points. Jack Evans ensured the latter happened 18 minutes from time with a scruffy finish from a free kick.

Not much was made of the winter transfer window by most of the Premier League clubs, a simple right-back exchange was made when Josh Neale’s minimum fee release clause of £5 million was triggered by Bournemouth. He was replaced within the week by Tottenham’s starlet, 21-year old Marc Palau.

Hamburg were the opponents in Europe. An Adrian Rey goal for the Germans in Worcestershire told Redditch it was an uphill task. Goals from Mangianello in the first leg and a late, late Liam Colquhoun winner in Germany ensured a 2-1 aggregate victory and Sparta Prague in the last sixteen. Draws against Everton and Arsenal were hampering league progress but cup progress was alive and well.

This was proved with two late goals at Goodison Park in the FA Cup to confirm an FA Cup quarter final appearance. An away goal in Czech Republic offered promise for a return leg against Sparta Prague, that was found in a 5-1 lumping of the Czech champions.

Sandwiched in between the Europa League triumphs was perhaps the most heart wrenching defeat of them all. 3-1 up at the Emirates in an FA Cup quarter final turned into 3-3 in the space of the final six minutes. A 3-1 shootout defeat wasn’t best preparation, but it freed up space in the calendar for a good go at breaching the top 4, and of course, the Europa League.

The first step on this journey was a disappointing 1-1 draw with Watford before 3 goals in the final nine minutes were needed to beat Burnley 5-2. However, a 71st minute strike from Mick Pickering against Liverpool, a 1-1 draw against Chelsea and a 6-1 thumping of Blackburn Rovers gave Redditch impetus. Seven points was the difference in the top six with five games to go.

City and United lead on 68 points with Spurs and Chelsea taking up the final Champions League spaces on 65 and 64 respectively with Redditch joining Liverpool on 61 points, in fifth on goal difference.

The Birmingham Post serendipitously played a role in Redditch’s Europa League quarter final against Sevilla, rattling manager Neymar from the outset.

Mark Stephens banished any thoughts of this from his mind, enjoying the return to Seville. He enjoyed it even more so with Pickering’s goal on 18 minutes, adding to Colquhoun’s opener. He then traded goals with Antonio Jimenez in the second half, gifting Redditch a 3-1 win.

This left Sevilla needing a 3-0 win back in Worcestershire. Those dreams were scuppered by half-time. A brace from Pickering and a tap-in from Max Doe saw Redditch’s advantage stretch to 6-1. Lapslie would miss a second half penalty and Igor would claim some consolation back for a depleted Sevilla without six players from the first leg in a 6-2 aggregate win for Redditch.

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May 27, 2043

 

Redditch’s biggest European nightmare was on the horizon in the shape of Sporting Lisbon who held a double over them in the group stages in the autumn. For a distraction, Redditch set about picking apart the Premier League, starting with a 4-1 romp at the Riverside stadium before a 2-1 win at home to West Ham.

Redditch were consolidating a fourth spot in the Premier League, whilst negotiating a Europa League semi-final first leg in Lisbon. A Mick Pickering header off a corner sealed a 1-0 win and, more importantly, an away goal in Portugal. West Brom held Redditch to a 1-1, hauling them out of the top four with their next league opponents, Spurs as their replacement.

By the eighth minute of their match at home to Sporting in the return leg in Worcestershire, the tie was effectively over. Max Doe’s sixth minute deflected finish preceded Mangianello’s free kick two minutes later, in a 3-0 aggregate win. Just three days later was a Champions League six pointer against Spurs.

They were deadlocked on 68 points with a similar goal difference, a win was necessary. Enter the half-time oranges with Spurs leading through an Xavier Gimeno opener on 22 minutes. Mick Pickering soon levelled the tie before Joaquin Herrera got Spurs back on track with a quick response. Ross Robson got a last gasp equalizer, keeping Spurs at arms’ length before Judas struck the winner.

Bradley Lapslie, with the last kick of the game, hit one from distance. 30 yards out, Redditch 3-2 Tottenham Hotspur.

Redditch could no longer win the Premier League, not that it was realistic to begin with (although, neither was Champions League football via the league route). A point was all that was needed but a win could guarantee group stages football in the Champions League—but so would a win over Roma in the Europa League.

In the end, nothing was needed against Sheffield Wednesday due to Spurs’ 0-0 at Hawthorns. United sealed the title with a flimsy 2-2 at Palace due to City dropping to third in a 3-0 loss to Chelsea.

Roma: Lucas Ramon nodded Roma into a 1-0 lead in Naples in time for the midway break. Afterwards was a thrashing that guaranteed group stages football in the Champions League after all. Mick Pickering had the night of his life.

Goal followed goal followed goal followed assist. 4-1 Redditch, Europa League champions.

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December 8, 2043

 

The catalyst for the successes of the 2042/43 season was a product of Mark Stephens being left alone by Janice and her clan. Redditch’s first season in the Champions League began slowly. Eight points from the opening five games after a loss to Spurs at home but wins against Sheffield Wednesday and Blackburn and draws to West Ham and Chelsea.

By that point, Redditch had scooped their first piece of silverware with the Super Cup—a Mick Pickering winner on the hour against Paris Saint-Germain.

Just £33m was spent, with £8m coming into the club with the sales of Jack Horncastle and Luke Hillier. Edgar Guzman and Pedro Robelo were signed, bolstering Redditch’s backline and at 22 and 19 respectively, the average age of the squad came plummeting down to levels of the 2019 Ajax squad.

A huge recruitment process saw eight players coming in on free transfers from Steve Tivey, Will Long and Ian Bird in defence to Paulo Henrique, Grant McNeil and Jim McKenzie in the midfield with Ismail Sahin brought in up front and Emmanuel Agyei snapped up as a number two. Strength in depth was needed for a Champions League campaign.

That campaign began in earnest, just seventy-one seconds in as Mick Pickering headed home in the Allianz-Arena, Bayern Munich going down to Redditch in the biggest result of the club’s history.

For the second time that year, Redditch surrendered a 3-1 lead to Arsenal, only to draw 3-3, a League Cup win over Preston distracted them enough, as did a 2-1 win at Middlesbrough in the league. Juventus were the visitors to Redditch for the club’s second Champions League game.

It took two minutes in Munich, it took seven minutes in Redditch for the debutants to find the net. By half-time, Redditch had waltzed into a four goal lead courtesy of two from Mangianello and one from Colquhoun and Pickering apiece. With two forthcoming fixtures against Dinamo Zagreb, qualification was all but sealed.

The defence was tightening up, not conceding between Champions League ties, with 1-0 wins at Sunderland and at home to Liverpool. The defensive record continued in Croatia, with Dinamo shipping five goals, sending Redditch into an almost unassailable position in the group, Bayern trailed by three, Juventus by six.

League form had been somewhat sacrificed as they sat nine points behind leaders Tottenham after just nine games.

Then the distraction that Mark Stephens was almost waiting for: a letter through the post, drenched in ‘blood’.

 

SUMMER VACANCY: A BRITAIN-WIDE INITIATIVE, FINAL SHIFT IN CARDIFF ON JULY 10TH.

 

That had a direct knock-on effect on the team’s play, Stephens was rattled, Palace holding Redditch to a 1-1 draw before Liverpool eliminated Redditch from the League Cup for the second straight season.

West Brom were the first team Stephens conquered since the anonymous note was sent through the post. A win in Croatia meant 12 points from 12 in the Champions League, 4-1 against Dinamo Zagreb.

Another four goals was scored at home to Manchester United four days later, all four from Pickering, but three points wasn’t assured. Watford, Reading and Burnley were all put away. The reverse was taking effect in Europe, with Bayern Munich and Juventus both putting Redditch away.

Bayern topped the group but Redditch’s early form staved off Juventus, who finished the group on ten points.

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May 16, 2044

 

The 3-1 loss at the Etihad was Redditch’s last for quite some time as they kicked into gear around the Christmas period. It took a home 0-0 against Southampton for it to fully take effect as they went on a rampage, beating Sheffield Wednesday (2-1), Newcastle, Swansea (both 2-0), Chelsea (1-0), Hull (3-1, in the FA Cup third round), Blackburn (4-1) and West Ham (2-1).

This had not only progressed them both in the FA Cup but in the Premier League, where they sat atop of the table, one point ahead of Man City and Spurs. Individual accolades saw Redditch enter 2044 with Mick Pickering in the World XI and Liam Colquhoun named as the European Golden Boy. 

World Eleven star Mick Pickering soon repaid his manager further, following a lackluster display in a 2-0 loss to Tottenham with the winning goal at Chelsea in the FA Cup fourth round. A 4-0 win over Boro put Redditch back into second place, behind Spurs with twelve matches remaining.

On the morning of Mark’s first day in his sixties, another blood red letter was hand delivered through his letterbox:

 

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: TAKE THE SUMMER JOB, OR ELSE (lots of love, Janice)

 

Mark was determined not to let this threat hamper his job, where another stunning away result, this time at Liverpool, saw Mick Pickering’s winner feed them into an FA Cup fifth round tie against Crystal Palace. A replay was needed and Redditch did the business at home, before relinquishing three points to Palace in the league.

Sunderland were beaten with ease in the league, as were Shakhtar Donetsk in the first leg of the second round. The only blemish: the Ukrainians netted an away goal, making the return trip that much harder. Grimsby were picked apart in the FA Cup again, this time in the quarter finals, promising a trip to Wembley before a trip to the Nou Camp was sealed, given a 6-2 aggregate win over Shakhtar.

A win at Old Trafford, Mick Pickering with the winner again threatened a late siege on the Premier League title. With a half an hour played, Redditch were two up at home to West Brom until they squandered three goals in a 3-2 loss. Eight points was the ground with seven games left.

The Old Trafford victory was profound, leaving Manchester United chairman David Beckham to request talks with Mark Stephens about a possible return and reuniting with Tom on the pitch.

Mark politely postponed talks until post-season when another letter was sent through the post.

WARNING: Do not, under any circumstances, return to Manchester United. If you fail to take our job in the summer (beginning in June), your grandson will be killed.

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April 24, 2044

 

The warning was heeded, either way: Mark Stephens was Redditch United manager in the latter stages of the 2043-44 season. The 2-0 demolition of Watford that followed was evidence of Mark’s commitment. The second-string side was enough on the Sunday, the first team was enough on the Wednesday in the quarter final of the Champions League.

Barcelona came to town. Thirteen minutes in, Liam Colquhoun had single-handedly put Redditch two up against mes que un club! Beraldo pulled one back for Barcelona only for two more goals to fly in before the half-time break.

Mick Pickering hit a free kick with Paulo Henrique’s rebound from 10 yards enough to put minnows Redditch 4-1 up against the almighty Barcelona. Johnatan Beraldo struck once more only for Colquhoun’s third of his hat-trick to return quickly. Two away goals would be enough for Barcelona to overturn almost any deficit back in Spain, Aydemir’s flicked header, a third for Barcelona.

A late, late Gianmarco Mangianello goal saw Redditch go into the second leg six days later with a 6-3 aggregate lead, not that Barcelona hadn’t overturned this in the past. The Madejski Stadium was a great distraction, Colquhoun and Pickering were needed late on to secure a win. Three points was the difference from Spurs with five matches left.

The more important Champions League was around the corner and with depleted numbers, Redditch slumped to an early disadvantage through Aydemir. Mick Pickering levelled on the half hour mark with Gianmarco Mangianello heading home a second for Redditch. Barcelona needed another four goals. Redditch couldn’t believe that they had taken a three-goal lead from the first leg and improved upon it in the second leg.

The second half saw Beraldo notch a consolation with the infamous Alfonso Ciardi, without sickness or any pay off this time round, netting five minutes from time. Barcelona would win on the night but not overall, surrendering an El Clasico in the final four.

It made sense that, just a few days later, Redditch struggled to a point at Turf Moor in the league.

A hellacious thrashing of Manchester City transpired four days later. A Mick Pickering hat-trick, sandwiched in between goals from Pedro Rebelo and Liam Colquhoun in a 5-0 thrashing of City. With that, they dropped out of the top four and had all confidence rattled.

The following weekend, City gained cruel retribution in the FA Cup semi-final. Mick Pickering and Rico Doriot traded second half penalties. City’s penalty warranted a straight red card for a high tackle from Paulo Henrique.

The scales were slightly skewed in the favour of City heading into what seemed extra time. Up stepped the man affectionately known as Rico Dorito in Manchester. Doriot bundled in a low cross through the goalkeeper’s legs to wrap up a bizarre semi-final in North London. The treble that seemed on the peripherals for so long, was officially cancelled.

After the dip against Burnley, five points needed to be made up in three games with two matches against Real Madrid to play for. Crunch time.

Before the final few games, Mark received another letter.

FINAL WRITTEN WARNING: Should no contact be made between parties, the employee will automatically selected for the summer job. No response in the following two weeks will result in physical warning in person.

Undeterred, Mark hopped on a plane to the Bernabeu.

Ten man Real Madrid had fallen behind to a Mick Pickering opener two minutes from half-time. The Madrid faithful had lost all hope in manager Markus Weinzierl. Real had won the league unbroken since 2030 and had a resiliency that saw Patrick Kebeya equalise six minutes into the first half.

The second leg would be played with Redditch holding an almost half a goal advantage, with an away goal at 1-1. Dreams of a Premier League title evaporated on the Saturday lunchtime, with a 1-0 loss down on the south coast to Southampton, leaving Spurs eight points clear with two games remaining.

Real Madrid ventured into unknown territory—Worcestershire.

Half-time saw a cagey match remain at 0-0 with Paulo Henrique breaking the deadlock on 51 minutes. Of course, Mick Pickering followed him on the scoresheet with a low curled effort fifteen minutes later. Redditch were in the ascendancy and with the Reds faithful behind them, more goals followed. Mangianello and Colquhoun in quick succession led Redditch to a 4-0 thumping of Real Madrid.

PSG awaited in the Champions League final.

Before that: two disappointing draws at Newcastle and Swansea ended Redditch’s league season in third—an improvement of a place upon last season, two behind Chelsea and twelve behind Spurs, four clear of Manchester City in fifth.

The morning after: a sharp knock at Mark’s door. The shadow of two twins, collecting their employee.

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May 28, 2044

 

With a gun pointed to his head, literally, Mark begrudgingly accepted the ‘summer job’, covering the Turleys, Janice and Bachlund at the European Championships in Scotland and Wales over the summer.

With the promise of ‘the final job’, Mark was quietly hopeful of his future being just that, his, for the rest of his life. A quiet life in Worcestershire, watching his son and, perhaps, grandson excel in the Premier League.

A big swing in the favour of Mark to carry out the job was the safety of his family. Footage of Tom and Scarlett’s new home, planted by the Turleys, played out on Scott’s phone.

“Good luck in the Champions League final.” George spluttered towards a floored Mark, Scott spat at him on his way out.

Pickering struck a post and McCormick hit the side netting early on as Redditch took command of the game. Redditch were in unchartered territory, as they had been for the entirety of Mark Stephens’ reign. This was bread and butter for Stephens, however.

The game was stage managed by Mark Stephens. They had dipped their toes in PSG’s final third in the opening ten, before retreating back into a counter attacking model.

This invited PSG onto them, Antoni Albert hit one from distance that scraped the crossbar. The French side penned Redditch into their own half, Alejandro Lorenzo slinking beyond a couple of Redditch’s defenders before the brick wall of Marc Palau. A long diagonal to Liam Colquhoun and a threaded ball to Mick Pickering.

Counter attack complete. Pickering rounded the goalkeeper, sliding the ball onto the foot of the post.

The game changed on that one, near perfect moment.

The half-time whistle blew on the stalemate. The same blueprint was carried out by Redditch only with the reverse result: Redditch’s Pedro Rebelo putting through his own net. Albert’s powerful cross was diverted by the Portuguese full back.

Redditch collected medals at the end, only silver. With that, Mark Stephens’ tentative approaches in the summer transfer window became justified. The central midfield sieve was far too wide when the pressure told in the final. Vujica Miletic, Brian Nicolau and Brice Rousseau: three young central midfielders were earmarked along with Espanyol’s Robert Scaion in defence.

Redditch were going again.

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June 10, 2044

Glasgow, Scotland

 

Mark was stood blankly talking to two suits clad with the UEFA logo in the bowels of Hampden Park.

“You don’t ken Glasgow, pal. Come tae Rangers.” One official said.

“Rangers? Get tae ****.” The other spluttered. The conversation turning towards the Old Firm completed Mark’s job for him. Mark laughed along with the two polarised Glaswegians, signalling to those behind him: Scott and George Turley.

They snuck down into the tunnel, pushing a player in dark blue into a room. Five minutes later, after Mark was jovially deciding between Rangers and Celtic, George Turley pushed the player in Scottish blue, Tony McCallum back into the tunnel. Ice bandaged to his knee.

McCallum motioned to a physio nearby, and with that distraction, the Turleys escaped back up to the director’s box.

“My knee’s gone Andy.” The scorer of Scotland’s muttered as he feigned a limp down the tunnel.

Another ‘injury’ in Tom Marshall as the pair were brought off at half-time. Janice and the Turleys magic had worked a treat as Scotland surrender a lead in Glasgow, Netherlands romping home to a 3-1 win after 3 goals in 17 minutes.

“Job one done,” Scott began with a smug look on his face in the press room post-match, “you’re on your for the next one: Ibrox in two days.”

“Israel v Germany.” Mark muttered, almost knowing what the plan was.

“Two briefcases will arrive at your door tomorrow. You distribute them.”

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June 12, 2044

Glasgow, Scotland

 

Mark always preferred the tighter boxed stadiums as opposed to open national stadiums such as Hampden, Olympiastadion and Wembley. The stadium was vibrating, almost 10,000 Scots were in attendance, a huge Celtic contingent.

German and Palestinian flags arched round a third of the stadium in the corner with small pockets of Israeli fans. There was an anticipation of something pre-game.

Mark had met with the two subjects the previous morning upon the deliverance of the briefcases. Mark snuck a peek before visiting the hotel room in question: four million euros split evenly.

German and Manchester United goalkeeper Andrzej Nawrocki was handed one bung as well PSG winger Patrick Helmer.

“Patrick, you don’t come to close to scoring a goal. Andre, let one slip through your fingers, it’s easy as that. You get all of this upon completion. Don’t make it obvious.” Mark shuddered, disreputing the game as he slipped out of the hotel room a floor above his.

The press box was up in arms as Helmer slid a fourth minute chance beyond the goalkeeper, skipping the ball slightly past the post. Heart in mouth time for Mark.

There was no minder accompanying Mark—they were on different Group D duties in Wrexham.

German celebrations ten minutes later, Helmer sprung the offside trap, rattling in a shot into the top corner. Mark put his hands to his face, Helmer had just put Germany into the lead, the referee had almost ran back to the centre circle until the flag caught the referee’s eyes: a sharp whistle.

Helmer threw his arms, enraged at the linesman, ruling the 17th minute opener out. Helmer handled whilst threw on goal, he skewed another two shots wide before half-time. He was on thin ice. The German manager, Roman Weidenfeller, was cycling through his attacking options on the bench early in the second half.

Helmer switched to his plan B, his immense workrate. The PSG winger, playing number nine for a depleted Germany, ran the most out of their entire eleven and three subs.

With the third sub coming onto the pitch in place of Michal Byrtek, Helmer had escaped. The other side of the deal wasn’t sealed and the time was ticking over.

Helmer had to create something out of nothing. Hugging the left wing, Helmer turned his back to goal as the move broke down, playing a long ball back to the centre half. Gunnar Merkel was caught unawares, slicing at a clearance allowing Israeli sub Asher Hozez on goal.

Hozez slipped the ball straight down Nawrocki in his career’s most vital moment. The tame effort was almost passed off by the German defenders who prepared for the next move.

The ball squirted through Nawrocki. Hozez strut in front of the Palestinian flags, arms wide.  Israel had just pulled off the biggest European Championship shock in history. 

Mark was one step closer to freedom.

 

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June 25, 2044

Conwy, Wales

 

“Get on with it, Mark. Do not bottle this now.” George imposed himself on Mark in the hotel kitchen, there was seconds to get this done. The breakfast platter of orange juices was lying in front of them, Mark was quivering whether to slip the capsules into the liquid.

“Just put it in six of them, that’s all we need. Six here and six next door.” Scott grabbed the capsules, distributing the drug over a few glasses.

“We’ve got ten million on this game, Mark, no ****ing about.” George shooed Mark out of the kitchen as they followed.

Seven or more bookings were placed on the Ireland v Scotland second round match.

The freshly built Conwy International Arena was the stage for the huge British contest, a potential match against Russia or Switzerland in the easier half of the draw.

Scott and George banished Mark from the Scottish hotel’s kitchen, where they carried out the same deed before travelling to the stadium.

Mark watched the ensuing carnage. Forget 2006’s battle of Nurnberg, late challenges from fatigued and drugged players saw nine bookings inside the opening half. With the game wrapped up, Scott and George fled the arena, having almost doubled their money.

Mark left at full-time, with a winner yet to be resolved, a 0-0 scoreline. Scotland would progress thanks to a Scott McAllister extra time winner.

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June 27, 2044

Wrexham, Wales

 

Mark Stephens was always nervous about the upcoming contest: Wales v Germany. Spain were awaiting the winner and Tom Stephens hadn’t really clicked into gear yet. There was an extra determination given the game was being played in his home country. Mark was terrified of his involvement with the Turleys and his mother.

Outside the stadium, signing autographs, Scott and George were off to one side, simply chatting and laughing along with Marcel Bahr and Gunnar Merkel—two German centre halves.

Mark was utterly incredulous.

He marched over to the quartet where Bahr and Merkel immediately. Two loyal defenders for their clubs: both one club men with Bahr an Arsenal defender, Merkel a Bayern Munich man were both selling their country out for quick money.

“We’re looking at 5 million apiece for you. We want a 1-0 Wales win. Nothing more, nothing less.” Mark hung his head in shame at being associated with the Turleys.

He had fallen out of love with the game.

Then, on 57 minutes, his own son handed the Turleys €31.6 million. A threaded through ball from the right wing found Dean Parry on the edge of the box and with one touch he finished beyond Nawrocki.

Mark Stephens, usually in jubilation mode for Wales triumphing in a tournament of this nature, was subdued, escaping the stadium the moment the final whistle blew.

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July 7, 2044

Cardiff, Wales

 

Mark and Janice were alone: it was officially a day off. They sat together, enjoying their son’s participation in the European Championship quarter final.

The entire thing was tainted from Mark’s perspective as Welsh captain Tom Stephens shook the hands of his eleven red-shirted Spanish opponents. There was an unparalleled buzz around the stadium—well, unless they had swapped Hampden for Ibrox. The crowd was 85% Welsh, roaring home the National anthem.

The two sat down after Mark belted out the tune.

“We have one more job and you can retire from our business,” Janice began as Alejandro Sanz rattled in Spain’s second goal on the half hour, as if that was the news to cushion the blow of Wales’ pending exit from the tournament.

“Semi-final in Cardiff: Scotland v Denmark. Get Scotland into the final, Scott and George have got a Danish player willing to throw the game.” Mark sat in silence watching the game, nodding slightly, a concession.

Vicente Abad notched Spain’s fourth goal on half-time before Mark spoke.

“This is it after Wednesday: no more.” Janice agreed with her nod. Wales won 4-1.

The Turleys big idea was in the form of £20 million waged on Scotland to qualify from their semi-final in Cardiff against Denmark and the Danish player targeted was Sebastian Ipsen.

Tony McCallum was back on their side too as he notched an 84th minute equaliser, taking the game into extra time. The game was poised on a knife edge, 1-1 as Scotland were flailing with a man disadvantage, thanks to Scott McAllister’s straight red.

Mark and Janice, just like the weekend, were sat together, Mark sat tight for the game to pan out.

“Ipsen should have thrown it by now, Mark. What if he’s pulled out, what if he—”

“What if he what? Actually wants to win a game of football? Win the European Championship with his country? Have some pride in his work and for his colleagues and his nation? That’s bizarre.” Mark’s true colours finally burst onto Janice after a month of toil.

Just as the two launched into a whispering argument near the press box, Sebastian Ipsen wheeled away in celebration. The Danish quarter of the stadium were in raptures, the Southampton midfielder had sunk Scotland in the 119th minute.

“Look at that. Looks like he got a better deal.” Mark proudly sat back in his chair, Janice screaming through her matted hair. “How much did you bet on Scotland?” Mark smugly asked.

“Thirty-five million pounds.” Janice wept.

“He must have got a better offer.” Mark left his seat, safe in the knowledge that he had acquired a new signing for Redditch.

Earlier in the day, Mark Stephens had promised Ipsen a contract at Redditch if he rejected the Turleys money and played for the love of the game. That determination took Denmark over the line.

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July 9, 2044

 

Thirty-six hours before the 2044 UEFA European Championship final, a sharp knock smashed through his hotel door.

“You’re due in the hotel lobby for a drink with Mrs. Stephens in two hours sharp.” A pistol was pointed to the head of Mark Stephens, still wrapped up in his duvet, dreaming of a Welsh victory.

Scott and George Turley were stood on the other end of those guns, foaming at the mouth, waiting to pull the trigger. Mark shot up to hold his hands in the air, naked in front of his two aggressors.

They scoffed aggressively before exiting the room, slamming the door shut on its way out, the hinges destroyed.

One hour and fifty-eight minutes later in the hotel lobby: Mark swallowed half of a bottle of beer in one swift movement.

Janice strides up to Mark in a nude dress, clinging to her hips. She lifts a hand to Mark: “if you put one step wrong, you will be taken care of by those.” Janice points to Scott and George in the other corner of the lobby, hands on their holsters.

“I’m sorry I got you into this, you’re obviously not the man I thought you were—you cannot handle this.”

A bottle and a half of prosecco and two hours later this had turned into: “The thing about Tom and Ed not being yours, that was blackmail, they 100% are but I needed your attention.”

“Okay.” Janice forces herself onto Mark, hushing him with her lips.

“I’m sorry.”

“What’s the plan for tomorrow?” Mark reluctantly backs out of the kiss to Janice’s surprise.

“I can’t tell you, you’ll only sabotage it.” Janice yanks Mark towards him. At that moment, Mark catches a glimpse of Mick Pickering outside the hotel, one hand in pocket, the other nervously checking his phone, tapping his feet.

The Turleys scurry outside to meet him.

“Never mind then.” Mark forgets he has seen Pickering, forcing himself into Janice’s kiss once more.

Through the tongue and teeth and lips, Mark had a counter attack.

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