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Rien102

The Prodigal Daughter Returns

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A hotel lobby, Wednesday 7 July, 2039, present days

When Penny Stiles arrived in the hotel lobby, she saw Max, her analyst, waiting for her.  «Hey minimax!

-                      Hey old hag!» he shot back.

-                      «Jon isn’t there yet?

-                      Nope.  Shouldn’t be long though …»  As he said the last word, they heard the elevator bell.  Both turned their head.  The elevator doors opened and Jon emerged from the car.

-                      «There you are you tardy!» said Penny.

-                      «Here I am you limping harpy!  Still grumpy as usual I see!»  She offered him a smile in response.

-                      «The damn edge was so high that I had to sit on it just to be able to enter the bath!»  Max looked at her, dumfounded.

-                      «Your bath’s edge is that high?

-                      There was no rail to hold on to…»  Both Jon and Max knew Penny very well and could easily imagine her, swearing in the bathroom…

Jon Stead met Penny Stiles for the first time almost fifteen years ago.  She’s just been given the reign of Aston Villa and he had gotten an interview to become her Assistant Manager.  If the first thing he noticed was the crutch, because it was unmistakable of course, the second thing was her eyes; they relayed determination, and ambition.  The process took over one hour but in less than fifteen minutes, he was under her spell.  Five days later, he signed his contract and since then, he blessed himself for accepting the call from the first woman manager in the Premiere League. When she left for the National team, she convinced him to stay at Villa but also to be her Assistant Manager with the Three Lions.

For Max Gunn though, it was a different story.  He ignored her initial phone call for a job interview fourteen years ago; he was an analyst with Swansea at the time.  He wouldn’t do the same mistake twice when she called again three years after.  Villa was solidly entrenched in third place on the table at that time, and she would get her place in the Champions League.  In the Europa League, she was in the Semi-Finals and, for what he saw, he thought she would reach the Final, and get her win; Villa was on fire since January already.  She effectively did got it, and with style too; a soul crushing 6-0 win against poor Wolfsburg.  When she left Villa, she asked him to follow her, on FA payroll, fulltime with the Three Lions.

The trio started to walk toward the exit and they could see a minibus with the Arsenal logo waiting for them, with a tall man in his thirties right in front of it.  Once they exited the hotel, the man came to them at a brisk pace and with a wide smile.  «Hi!  I’m Eric and I am from the team’s hospitality crew».  Penny extended her hand forward to shake the man’s.  Jon and Max followed.

-                      «Thanks Eric.  I’m Penny, here are Jon and Max.

-                      I hope all the accommodations are to your liking».  Penny decided to put her personal pride away.

-                      «Everything is perfect.  Shall we go?»  The man waved the trio toward the vehicle.

As they hit the road, Penny got her tablet out and started to sift through some pages of text.  Jon and Max stayed silent.  They knew that she liked to re-read what she considers to be main topics of future discussion.  Both men had talked at length during the flight from New York to London.  Max had gotten a hold on every single reports, about all the players in the main squad and, with Jon, they went through them while trying to make them fit, or not, with what they knew.  Penny, who was dead tired, simply withdrew from the talks by unfolding her sleeping seat; first class flights have privileges.

As the trio were getting out of the airplane, Max gave the excerpt of the different conclusions Jon and he had come to.  At least, they knew four players very well.  Domingo Ruiz, the goalkeeper, was bought by Penny seven years ago; he was among the top ten goalkeepers in the world.  Diego Pearce and Leon Smith were both former Villa Academy players she integrated to the main squad rapidly.  Finally, there was Reuben Edge, a solid central defender they learned to know and like with the Three Lions.  They all thought, Penny first and foremost, that to have four players who had played for more than three or four years each for her in a club, would give leverage to her reputation.  The fourth was a bonus; he knew her in a setting that was very different, where expectations are almost unbearable in England, whoever you might be.  She wouldn’t be able to use Reuben and Leon right at start though; they both got a respite after the World Cup.  As for Domingo, the man would be playing the World Cup final in three days…

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Birmingham, Penny Stiles’ house, Sunday 2 May 2038

Penny has gotten five calls for interviews in the last two weeks.  The end of the campaign in the Premiere League was two weeks away and she’s got calls from four of the league’s teams.  Despite the season only ending in a month, she also got calls from two German teams in the Bundesliga.  After taking a careful look at the teams, she’s decided to accept interviews with three:  Manchester City, Arsenal and Bayern.  Darren Crow, her agent, has asked her to postpone the decision by a few more weeks because he strongly suspected that Real Madrid and Inter would fire their managers in the coming days but she just wanted to get on with it.

As she was plugging her kettle, the doorbell rang.  «Come in Max, it’s open!» she screamed at the top of her lungs.  The analyst instantly opened the door.  Dropping his jacket on the balustrade, he proceeded up the stairs.  There was no ceremony.  For two years now, he was coming to her house to work; he was living only three doors away.  Since she was living alone, she had set up three giant screens and the FA had rigged a good network in the place; they’ve been watching every conceivable game to make tactical analysis and player evaluations.

«Hey Penny, I wasn’t supposed to work today…  Got some more games sent?» Max said as he arrived at the top of the stairs.  She usually would let him have Sundays off.

-                      «Nothing like that.  Come at the island, the water will be ready soon» she answered.

She was in a pensive mood Max noticed, which wasn’t unusual, but it seemed to be different today he thought.  He put his backpack by the kitchen wall and went to sit at one of the island’s stool.  She had put cookies on a plate to accompany the tea.  He almost laughed.  She saw that the man was holding his laughter; she showed him a middle finger.  She put her phone between them and selected Jon’s contact icon.  She made the call and selected the freehand button at once.  It rang three times before he picked up.  «Hey Penny!» said Jon.

-                      «Hi Jon, I’m with Max right now.

-                      Hi Max!

-                      Hi Jon!» said Max.  «Congrats for coming back in Premiere!

-                      F*** you!»  The three of them laughed… but it was hollow.

Only two years after Penny left for the Three Lions, Aston Villa was relegated to Championship.  The manager who replaced Penny emptied the hard accumulated war chest she had left behind.  In two transfer windows, he spent over nine hundred million pounds in transfers, sold two third of the squad and exploded the wage budget from one hundred and thirty million pounds to two hundred and fifty million.  From twenty three, the main squad became twenty seven players big.  The club finished in eighth place; not even enough to qualify for a European competition.  He was fired and a new manager came in.  The remnant of the war chest was cleaned up and more players were brought in.  The main squad ending up with thirty one players; four couldn’t even be registered.  Mutiny ensued; he was fired before the January window.  The one who replaced him couldn’t transfer the overstock because all the contracts were too high and because of all the unhappy players, the squad’s morale was at rock bottom, and it stayed there.  The club ended the campaign in eighteenth position and got relegated.  Eleven years of work, to bring the club to the top of the Premiere League, and third on the EUFA ranking, got scrapped in two years.

«Ok, we’ll have enough time to pull each other’s leg later» said Penny to stop the laughter.  «I wanted to talk to you because both said you wanted to come with me to my new club after the National team, right?

-                      Yes, I did» said Jon on the phone while Max just nodded with his head.

-                      «Well, I have some news on that front and, before saying yes to a club, I want to know where you want to go».  She saw Max lean a bit forward; he now knew why he had to work alone so often lately.  «In the last weeks, I went to some interviews, three in fact.  I got more calls than that, and my agent think I should have waited a bit for La Liga and Serie A to end because of Real Madrid and Inter… but I wanted to settle things quickly.  As of right now, all three teams want to negotiate contracts with me:  Manchester City, Arsenal and Bayern, in Munich.  So, I have one question for you:  Where do you guys want to go?»  Both men stayed silent.  She had to a start talking again.  «So?

-                      Bayern?» said Jon at the end of the line.

-                      «Yes» answered Penny.  «Opinion?

-                      City will be a hell hole!» said Max.  «They have a rather young team but with huge contracts.  That would make it difficult to do anything if we need to.  Besides, they are eating managers for over ten years now.  Arsenal is underperforming like crazy.  Bunch of chokers maybe… or a succession of bad managers?  They ate five of them in the last four years!  I still think they should be in CL nonetheless with the squad they have.  Bayern might be a hoot though.  Great team, but getting old.

-                      I agree on City» said Jon on the phone.  « For Arsenal, well, it’s London and I agree about underperforming.  They gutted us by getting Diego and Domingo when we dropped and yet, they can’t do anything worthwhile!  Bayern would be fun for sure; well establish team with great players but we probably would be managing a transition toward younger players.  Their youth teams haven’t been good lately so, it would be market work mostly.  I think it would be well suited for you though, a transition toward younger players…

-                      But which one do you want to go to Penny?» asked Max.

-                      «I don’t know…  Well…»  Max saw her becoming shy and this, he was surprized to see that.  «…I must say Arsenal is pretty tempting.  I come from there, you know?  Bayern, I’d say it would be very fun to arrive in a good team with high expectations.  I’m scared about the type of play though, very different from PL...  City? I went because, well… I just wanted leverage against others clubs…

-                      Shrewd bitch!» said Jon.  Max laughed.

-                      «Personally, I don’t really care» said Max once he got his composure back.  «I asked to go with you after the Three Lions, I follow where you go and that’s it.

-                      Penny…» said Jon, «…it’s fun to go back to our roots…»

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London Colney, Wednesday 7 July, 2039, present days

When Penny got out of the minibus, she saw the Arsenal logo on the brick wall by the main entrance.  She went straight to it and slowly, delicately, passed her left hand over the sign, caressing it.  She sighed and murmured:  «I never thought I’d be yours again old friend…»  Jon and Max followed her and stood on both her sides, staying silent.  The trio stood in silence for a few seconds before going through the now open door of the main complex.

Once inside, a group of people was waiting for them.  In the forefront was one of the two Managing Directors of the club, Kim Franssen.  «Welcome home Penny, Jon and Max!

-                      Thank you ma’am» said Penny for the three of them.

-                      «I thought that it would probably be appropriate to let you see them before going any further…» said the executive.  The group parted and in the back, stood ten former Arsenal Ladies players and coaches.  Penny recognized them all and she felt the emotions coming up fast.  Before she even could recover from the shock, all the women came to her to give her hugs.  Some tears were shed in those first minutes at her new job.  All the women came to her with the same bit, that had a taste from the olden days:  «Welcome home Sarge!»

Both Jon and Max were seeing something they never thought possible; Penny was drowning in emotions, in public, and it wasn’t rage!  Even when Villa made her a little ceremony for her departure, she didn’t shed a tear!  If they found it funny, they also noticed something else:  The manager of one of the biggest club in England, who was a woman, was met by another woman who was leading the ship as Managing Director.  For them, to have Penny as a manager was no problem at all…  If it ever was, it was long gone… but today, they thought they were part of a bit of history.  They looked at each other and both smiled.  As they looked away, they saw the executive come to them and offering her hand.  They both got greeted personally.  «Welcome to Arsenal.  We’re happy to have you with us» she told them.  It was Max that spoke first.

-                      «The pleasure is ours ma’am.  We can’t tie our shoe laces without mum so, we follow!»  The three of them laughed.

Once all the welcoming was over, Penny, Jon and Max got treated to a little tour of the facilities.  She was surprised, and happy, to see that one of the people in charge of the facilities was a former Arsenal Lady; Sue Chambers.  Cameras from Arsenal TV followed them and numerous pictures were also taken.  After all the touring was done, Max went back to the Data Analysis Center to meet his boss and co-workers more thoroughly and Jon went to see the staffs that were already working with the squad outside.  As for Penny, she had to go to a meeting with the club’s management.

The meeting ended at lunch and Penny was escorted toward the player’s cafeteria.  Padraig Roche, the remaining Fitness coach, was waiting for her at the door.  He would present the players and staffs who were there.  She knew almost all of them, for playing against them with Villa; tunnels and post games handshakes does that.  Lots of players got up and came to her, offering a handshake and presenting themselves.  About twelve had come when, in front of her, stood Diego Pearce.  She couldn’t keep it to herself:  «You’re already here you lazy ass!!!» she said in a stern voice, so loudly that all in the place could hear.  «What the hell was that?  Quarter finals only???  Pfff!!!Even sooner than me!!!» 

-                      «Sorry boss!  My manager didn’t want to meet you… we caved!» he said with a big smile.  Both of them started to laugh.  A few seconds later, Diego started to speak again.  The tone was now subdued, full of sadness.  «It was like our last CL Final together boss…  Everything perfect until the last tap…  Four frameworks, two outward nets…  Just nothing wanted to go in…  Even during the shoot-out…»  She saw the pain of the souvenirs in his eyes, which were becoming a bit glossy.  «I’m happy to see you here boss…» he said before hugging her tightly, his head now engulfed in her shoulder and hair from her long ponytail.

-                      «I’m happy to be here my boy…» she answered, stroking her player’s hair gently while wearing a comforting smile.

The embrace between the two lasted for at least fifteen seconds.  The sight of this 6”2’, 180lbs, man and the 5”11’, 150lbs, woman was something to watch...  All in the cafeteria got to see a deep connection between the two but mostly, they all saw the respect Diego got for this woman with steely eyes.  When he finally broke the hug, he wiped his eyes before lifting his head up to smile at her.

Jon, from his end, felt something creep in him.  Penny, the woman who took this boy from the Academy when he couldn’t even shave yet, was looking at a world class midfielder, a superstar in all respect and scales, who, in turn, was showing her all the respect he could offer his boss who pretty much made him who he was today.  Jon’s thoughts slipped toward the shock that would hit the squad, which was witness to this embrace, during their first team meeting with her after lunch, especially following such a display of affection…

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«All is done as I asked?» said Penny to one of the facilities’ attendant.

-                      «Yes ma’am.  Just make me a sign and we’ll start the song.

-                      Will it play loud?

-                      Oh yes ma’am!» said the attendant with a devious smile.  «Just like a concert!»  She returned the smile.

She went to her office to fetch the trophy replicas she had asked for.  There was one for each of the competitions she had won:  Premiere League, FA Cup, League Cup, Europa League, Champions League and Nations League.  All were sitting on a little metal cart.  Jon entered her office while knocking on the door.  She was wearing a devilish smirk.  «Can you roll the cart?» she asked.

-                      «Sure Penny.  Are you certain you want to go at it that way?» he asked.  He was having doubts about the little stunt.

-                      «You bet I am Jon!» she answered defiantly.  «Even more so since Diego gave me that kind of a hug!»  She started to walk without saying another word.

The pair arrived just outside the room.  The door was closed and the attendant was standing by it, waiting.  This meant that all were inside.  She made him a hand sign.  The attendant spoke into his talkie and three seconds later, the song started blasting in the room!  Penny had chosen an old song that was her dad’s all-time favourite:  “The Trooper” from an ancient heavy metal band:  Iron Maiden.  The song was the story of a single cavalry man dying during the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade.  She let the first two bars play and then she opened the door.  The music blasted through the open door and she worked hard to repress the smile that wanted to imprint on her face.  When the first words of the song started to be heard, she entered, with Jon and the cart in tow.

Her facial expression was radiating arrogance and defiance.  She quickly turned toward the table that was in the front of a whiteboard where the lyrics were projected, just like a karaoke machine.  She didn’t look at anybody in the room and she had insisted that Jon do the same.  She walked along the wall, watching the whiteboard at the same time.  She was walking more slowly than usual; she wanted to reach the table only at the start of the second verse.  She knew it was theatrical to the hilt but she wanted leverage, and fast.  When she arrived at the table, she stood, immobile, while showing her back to the players.  She was looking at the second verse lyrics on the board while Jon was rolling the little metal cart with the replicas behind her, where all could see them.  He then joined her, turning his back on the players too.  During the guitar solo, she felt a cold shiver down her spine; she liked the silence in the room, apart from the song of course.  She turned toward the players as the last verse started.  She brought her crutch in front of her and put her left hand to lay on her right.  Once turned, she was looking more arrogant than she ever did, more than she ever thought she could, really…

The last verse was almost over now and she saw that the players were not looking at her, but at the lyrics on the whiteboard.  There still was some surprise on their faces, even after three minutes of the song playing.  She saw one player flinch at the one before last lyric of the last verse:  «And as I lay forgotten and alone».  She worked harder to keep her demeanor.  The song ended abruptly; there was no fading out in death…  She only let two seconds pass before she started to speak.

«Get so close, near enough to fight… Get so near, yet so far away…  Fitting words for you guys, don’t you think?»  Her voice was a tad aggressive, on purpose.  She wanted to hit them where it’s supposed to hurt:  their pride.  «I won’t die forgotten…»  she continued while picking the EPL trophy replica in her hand and lifted it for all to see.  Two seconds later, she threw it across the room down to the floor.  «I got four of those…»  She repeated the gesture with the FA Cup replica.  «Three of those I got too…»  Her stare was as arrogant as she could make it.  She took each replica in succession, without hesitations, saying the number she won every time, just before throwing them away.  The replicas were all lying on the floor now.  «And you?  Got so close, near enough to fight…  Got so near, yet so far away…»  She caught the eye of Diego who was looking at her; he was in pain she saw.  She knew he could take it …

«The real question though is unanswered!  Were the managers not up to the task or was it you…»  Her stare was piercing and she was seeking every single pair of eyes in the room.  «…that weren’t up to the task?  Where you badly led or are you nothing but chokers?  Nothing but a bunch of wimps who are not strong enough to finish the work?»  She saw that some took the last phrase very badly; she was happy with that.  «Next year, this club is going to Europe.  For that, I will make you discover the three keys to go there:  Work, work and more work!  You think you have worked hard to get here, right?  You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!  I can guarantee you that I am the real cast iron bitch who will ride your ass until you drop dead!  I will also make you show, for all to see, how good you can really be!  I did it before, multiple times!  Just look at all those trinkets on the floor…»  She knew she was skating on paper thin ice now…  «I have nothing to prove to anyone now ‘cause all know I can do it… But you?»  She was scanning the room.  She saw that a lot of them felt the gauntlet she had thrown at them; it was a painful experience.  She let the words sink in for five seconds before she started to walk back toward the door. 

Half way there, she stopped and looked at the players again:  «And for all of you who planned to come see me, crying to leave ‘cause you want to go to a club that is in a continental competition?  I only have this to say: you will leave only when I know you are a choker or a wimp, not before!»  She turned and walked for the door again.  As she was passing it, she added, loudly:  «Don’t you have a gym session to go to right now?»

Once outside, she looked at her watch.  The entire meeting lasted a grand total of seven minute, including a four minute song before she started to speak.  She was wearing a satisfied smile as she was walking toward her meeting with the analysts…

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Penny was with Jon in her office.  During the afternoon, he supervised the work of the team while Penny went to meetings and PR stuff like taking official photos and, most of all, giving multiple interviews.  She was in a predictably foul mood.  The sun still was relatively high and both of them were reviewing player cards and reports to try and figure out the type of system she could put on the pitch.  It was obvious that the previous managers were playing a 4-1-2-3 but she didn’t understand why the DMs they had at the club, in her opinion, were so weak.  «What do we know now?  First, we have a team designed to play a 4-1-2-3 with the midfield mainly composed of technical guys who are pretty physically imposing.  But, apart from Diego, none of them are defensively strong or good tacklers too; they’re average at best.  Two, we have wingers that are all the same, except one.  None can play anything but their strong foot.  The only one that has two pegs is so slow, he can’t explode behind the defense so, he’s forced to cross the ball early.  At least, he’s good at doing that.  Most of all, none of them can play well defensively because they all are awful markers and tacklers, this mean that the midfielders must do all the work to get the ball back…  Sigh…

-                      Penny, we must accept the fact that we have technical players in the midfield, except Diego, period.  Endri Muça can do the job but he is a bit of coin toss on challenges to get the ball back.  Once he has it, he is very good though…» said Jon.

-                      «Ok; technical only except Diego who is everything…  Third, we have we have one of the best pair of forwards in the League with Moreno Brambilla and Leon.  The problem is, we have three forwards with First team contracts or better so, we can’t play a lone striker in front without having one of them complaining about play time.  Beside, our third best, Abdelaziz Kebbabi, well, I like him!  At 6’5”, 200 lbs?  He’s built like a bull… and you know I love those who are built like that!» she said with a sardonic smile.  «At the other end of the pitch, finally, we have central defenders who can do the job extremely well with Reuben and Jack Goodbye plus, we have a third one, Tim Moore, that is powerful and aggressive but don’t jump as high as them...  To that, we have to add Cenyr, our captain.  He came in from the Arsenal academy almost twenty year ago and is playing is very last season since he’s 35 now; he should tell me he’ll retire at the end of the season.  He’s very intelligent on the pitch but he’s just too slow now.  On the sides, we have the same fullback duplicated three times:  defensive guys who can’t go forward because they are either too slow, lack decision making skills or can’t cross or pass the ball correctly.  That is when those three flaws aren’t combined into a single guy...  In short, we have a rather physical crew, which I like, but except for Diego in the midf …» she was interrupted by a knock on her office door.  «Come in!» Penny said loudly.  A middle aged woman opened the door and passed her head inside.

«I’m sorry to disturb you ma’am, but we thought you would both be hungry since it’s seven o’clock now…»  Penny watched the clock on the wall; it indeed was 19h00.

-                      «Great idea!» she said while smiling.  «Could you call me Penny, please?»  The woman, who was part of the kitchen staff, smiled and started to walk toward the meeting table with a little cart in front of her.

-                      «Of course Penny.  As you wish.  We still don’t know your tastes yet and, since you ordered the beans salad at lunch, we didn’t take any chance and made you a vegan plate.  As for the man, we brought lemon chicken with some pasta salad since he took white meat.  We also added some breads, you can see what’s in them on the little card under each of them, cheese and a plate of fruits and nuts for dessert.  We got you hot water with various teas for you to choose from plus a thermos of coffee».  Penny looked at the cart that was being rolled in; there clearly was effort put into the dish.  She smiled to the woman again while Jon was looking at his plate with gusto.

-                      «Thank you very much.  You are making the bread?»  The woman nodded.  Penny was impressed…  «For myself, I eat pretty much anything… The only things I don’t like are licorice flavours or anything similar to it…  As for the beans salad, to be honest, I felt like meat… but those three weeks in the United States for the World Cup, where they deep fry everything…  I saw that my trousers were a bit… tight, this morning!»  Penny saw that Jon refrained from making a joke; she would get him for that.  «As for the man, I want him to only get calorie wise stuff since he’s getting love handles lately!»  The woman became beet red while Penny, and Jon, started to laugh!

-                      «Just leave the cart in when you’ll leave; we’ll take care of it tomorrow morning ma… Sorry… Penny».  Without another word, she turned heels and headed for the door.

Jon rolled the cart to the meeting table and started putting the plates on it.  He quickly realized how hungry he was; his mouth was watering just by looking at the food.  He took some of the breads’ cards and saw that there was some with lots of grains, some with nuts, and some with some spices…  Penny joined him and both started to eat.  There wasn’t much talk.  It was a rule she put right at start; during meals, no shop talk was allowed when she wasn’t alone.  When Penny was out of pasta salad with what tasted like kale, she asked Jon about Max.  Jon smiled and said:  «The bastard is probably at the hotel right now!

-                      You plan to watch tomorrow’s World Cup Final?

-                      Wouldn’t miss it for the world…  If only I could have thought it possible to root for Germany!»  Penny laughed, but it was a bit hollow; Spain has won the semi against the Three Lions; it was because of them they were here now instead of next week.  Not to mention that Domingo, the former Villa goalkeeper, was with the Spanish National Team.  After a few more bites of food and more moments of silence, she smiled devilishly before forgetting her own rule.  Not permitting shop talk didn’t mean she wasn’t thinking about it…

-                      «How about we all give ourselves a semi-permanent heart attack?» 

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«Our main tactical stance will be a system based on a low block» said Penny to her tactical coaching and managing staffs.  She could see in their eyes that the last part of the sentence made them flinch, just like it did with Jon yesterday night.  «Since we have physical players in general, who are physically imposing, we will use that.  On the pitch, we will do three specific things.  First and foremost, we will play a rather low defensive line with little to no pressing coming from it.  We have very good jumpers overall so, we will profit from this by intercepting crosses.  Two, we have good, and rather fast, central midfielders but they aren’t used to play as defensive midfielders so, to close the gap between them and the defensive line, we will compress our lines as much as possible.  We will engage the opponents only in our territory and we will harass them from behind and from every angle except for the defenders; the latter needing to stay at their position at all time.  Finally, when attacking, only the six in front will be engaged directly.  The defenders will have to stay back; it’s not like we can push our actual fullbacks forward because they can’t do anything offensively anyway…»  Penny was seeing her peoples starting to put things together now.

-                      «Penny, this mean we will play long balls, right?» asked Jonathan Nolet, her U23 manager.

-                      «Long balls only? No, but we will often play more direct balls from the back, that is true.  Especially since we will primarily put something akin to a 4-2-4, just like in the old days.  To accommodate some players, we’ll also put a 4-2-3-1 at times but mainly against weaker teams.

-                      The key will be to play a bit narrower on defensive stances, to force the play on the wings, and then spread out on offensive phases» said Jon.  He got up and went to the whiteboard and started to show the set-up.

Penny sat back and let him do his bit.  God does she love the connection she made with this very offence minded man.  When she has brought him in, she has just arrived at Aston Villa and she needed someone who would compensate for her usually more defensive minded tactics.  Over the years, she saw how good they were when both of them were putting their minds together.  Her more prudent approach combined with his more aggressive stance was a perfect mix that, in the end, produced awesome results.  What the media called “The Big Change” with Villa, ditching the 4-2-3-1 for the 3-5-2, some of them nicknamed the pair “fish and chips”.  The talks between the two have been hard at the time.  It finally became an exercise of balance between “being a pussy and being a lion” he once told her!  It was like they were a Klopp-Buvac pair when it came to tactics while the good cop/bad cop looked, as some said, a bit like the old Clough and Taylor pair…

She smiled internally because after three years together, she discovered that they also were a great good cop/bad cop duo as well.  She naturally was the bad one; she was relentless with the players, always motivating them for more effort, more commitment.  She was fair, she knew it; praising when it was deserved but when not…  She was, at times, rough around the edges, to put it mildly, but with Jon, she never really had to do anything about it.  He was the one that would comfort the players when it was needed.  He wasn’t naturally inclined to be a mum but it grew naturally in him; he understood it was needed.

The rest of the meeting went rather smoothly.  Some didn’t like the low block but she didn’t mind or care; most don’t like low blocks anyway.  Just like the trope in the top leagues in the last twenty years have been to put systems with a lone strikers helped by a pair of inside forwards.  Hence, 4-2-3-1s, 4-3-3s and 4-1-2-3s had been staples for years now.  She prefers narrow formations, heavy in the midfield, with wingbacks providing the width and a strong pair of strikers in front; a real pair of strikers at that!  After the fourth season with Villa, her constant results were achieved, over and over again, with a 3-5-2 that was becoming a 4-4-2 on defence.  She knew, deep inside, that she would transformed the club for something like that but for now, she had five wingers who couldn’t play anything but wingers so, she had to make due.  When it was over, she scheduled meetings with the U23 and U18 managers to make sure both would play the same system and to ask info about their respective squads.  Once done, she headed off to her next meeting:  the scouting crew.

When she arrived, she saw that Moonchi, the Director of football, the Head scout and the Head analyst were already there.  «Am I late?» she asked.

-                      «No» said Ramon Rodriguez, her Head analyst.  «We all just arrived!

-                      Good, shall we start then?

-                      Yep!» said Gilles Grimandi, her Head Scout.

-                      «Alright then» she said as she sat down at the table.  «So, three small orders of business.  One, the club’s short list?  I want you guys to make me a good presentation of it for Monday afternoon.  I want to know who you were watching and why.  Second, I talked with the management and we will now go worldwide for all our research.  Moonchi» she said looking at the Director of football, «…would you act on it please?»  He nodded.  «Finally, I want you to start by looking for wingbacks.  Not fullbacks, wingbacks!  I want someone able to go forward from the back, and before the transfer window closes!»

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Again Rien, really loving your style of writing very easy to follow. 

I know its an old cliche here but looking forward to reading more

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@mark wilson27 tks for the comment.  It's appreciated.

 

For her third day on the job, Penny had two things on her agenda.  The second item was the one she was looking forward the most; the first training session on the pitch with the players.  First though, she had to take a good look at the squads’ contracts and wages.  On arrival, she had a little meeting with the Managing Directors and they brushed a quick picture of the finances:  all that was related to her were within the planned budgets.  To that, she has a little over forty-two million pounds available in transfer budget; she would need it for that wingback she was looking for and maybe some reinforcement in the midfield.

Once she was in her office, she opened her computer and started to work.  The overall wages was a little staggering: two hundred and fifty million pounds per annum.  She knew that there were a lot of players wearing the Arsenal colors but still…  The main squad was composed of twenty five players and the average age of the squad was about twenty seven years old, which wasn’t bad.  There still was three players over thirty two and none under twenty four.  The latter being a bummer in her point of view.  She also knew that the squad wages was among third or fourth in the EPL; this was very high but for now, since the club management didn’t raise any red flag, she’d go with it.  She knew that she would reduce it at some point but she figured she had until the end of the season to start doing anything.

For the reserve squad, she was swimming into another kind of water.  It was composed of forty three players, with eighteen of them that just returned from loans.  She started by checking the basics: three players were old players that didn’t have the level to play for the main squad anymore.  At least, all of them were on contracts that would run only for a year… but two of them were over ten million pounds per annum!  There was seventeen players that were beyond their twenty first birthday so, this meant that to be able to use them as subs, in an injury crisis, she would need to have them registered… and the squad was already full so…  She made herself a note to talk about this with the U23 manager before doing anything.  As for the Academy issued players squad, other than being nineteen players strong, and that four of them were already eighteen years old, there wasn’t much to say.  To have so many eighteen years old still was a bit too much for her taste … It was something to check with the U18 manager.  As she was taking notes for the meetings, the alarm on her phone started to ring; it was time for the tactical training session outside; this was the next item on her agenda, and the one she knew she would like better.

As Penny was arriving to pitch number three, she saw that the small scaffold with stairs, not a ladder, was already on the side of the pitch.  On it was a gigantic magnetic withe board plus a little tarp, just in case.  The players were slowly gathering around the scaffold after their warm-up session.  As for the staffs, Jon was there, Tim Bakens, her Offence coach and Andy Butler, the Defence coach.  All already knew what system they would practice.  Penny started to get up the stairs.  As she arrived at the top, she noticed that a few water bottles were there too; Sue, her ex-teammate, had thought of everything…

«Good day men!» she said when she saw that all the squad was there.  «Now that you all got a good look at the way we’ll play with Jon, Tim and Andy, it’s time we put some of it on the pitch to get a feel of it all.  First, we’ll work on defence…»  The squad were split in yellow and red teams.  Once all the players were in place, she reminded them some of instructions and then, the players started to play.  At one point, she saw something and blew her whistle twice to stop the players:  «Stay where you are!» she said loudly.  The reds were in possession and just crossed the midfield line.  She called on the pair of midfielders, Endri Muca and Diego.  «Endri and Diego!  You should be lower than that!  Remember, the D-line is playing lower so you are the ones who are supposed to compress the space between the midfield and them».  Endri looked around.

-                      «Boss, should I go at them instead?»  She looked at the space.

-                      «Not as of now.  Since yellows are playing the same way, your man is in midfield but your task is to force the forwards to go into the D-line, not to cover them.

-                      But…»  Penny interrupted him.

-                      «Endri, for now, we’ll focus on the defensive phase since it is the scenario in play at the moment.  Just focus on the tasks at hand, ok?  Drop enough to force their frontline to go at our d-line and cover the midfielder assigned to your space.  Cut the vertical line of passing and that’s it».  With the Three Lions, she learned to appreciate the player but he was prone to lapses in concentration.  Despite being a rather good deep lying playmaker, he was often more inclined into putting himself into a mode where he would start to think at the transition, if and when the ball would be recuperated, instead of focusing on making sure the ball was recuperated first.  This meant that he would often position himself a wee bit too high, giving precious space to be exploited by a forward willing to play a little in front of the D-line.

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She was getting a late work dinner with Jon and the rest of the coaching staff.  All afternoon, the team had been playing scenarios on two phases of play, defence and offence.  «I think we should ask the men to regroup a bit more before going into pressing» said Andy.

-                      «I concur» said Penny while buttering some bread.  «I think we should also ask the forwards to press even more right from the start.

-                      A fast and quick transition will be difficult to do if they’re out of position» said Tim.

-                      «Naw» answered Jon.  «With the pace and acceleration our forwards have, I don’t think it’s an issue.  At worst, we’ll instruct to lump over the d-line in those situations, and that would be it.

-                      But the transition will be uncertain, wouldn’t it?» asked Penny.  She knew Jon was better at this and wasn’t afraid to ask the question.

-                      «I’d say we may lose some opportunities because of bad balls here and there but Leon, Moreno and Abdelaziz have the pace….  Beside, when push comes to shove, when this scenario will happen, there’ll only be one out of the play so, the other will put himself into position anyway.

-                      I think Jon is right» added Tim.  «At worst, can we tell them not to press at the same time?

-                      That could be done» said Penny.  «The only thing I want is to have a press coming from behind the opponent.  We let them come deep and when they are working to set themselves up for a shot, they need to constantly watch their back.

-                      If we focus on working on them only two third inside our territory, the lines would be so compressed anyway…» Andy chimed in.  This was where Penny was sitting on the fence.  Yes, this is what she wanted but it was the transition forward, once the ball was back to the Gunners, this was what was bothering her; where were the starting blocks?  Just at that moment, Jon came back into the conversations.

-                      «Look, Moreno is a lefty, Leon and Abdelaziz are righties.  If our main pair in front is Moreno and Leon, then let’s put Moreno on the right side of the pair and Leon on the left since Diego would be used on the right midfield position.  Moreno is a great advanced forward but is not as good at pressing.  As for Leon, we all know that he can do pretty much anything; he’s strong, agile, can press, got great balance, decent tackling abilities and can jump.  All of them have pace.  So, we ask Leon to do everything in front.  He will do the pressing and harassing from behind for, let’s say, the vertical two third of the pitch.  We then asked Moreno to press only in the last vertical third.  While Leon will show his great work rate, for a striker, we’ll ask Moreno to probe the d-line and to keep both his feet in the starting block just like for Abdelaziz.  Whatever the outcome, all can outpace pretty much every single defender in the league.  As for the transition itself, we have two great guys in midfield that can pretty much play every option with a good degree of success.  If the ball is lumped over the d-line, Moreno and Abdelaziz will run.  If we can build from the back, Endri and Diego can do that…»

When Penny kicked them out of the office at 20h00, she was satisfied.  The talks have been very productive; all the players’ instructions for the defence phase have been laid down and some basic ones for offence as well.  There still was some talking to do for the offence itself, and its transition, but it would need a bit more time.  As she sat at her desk, she saw that there was a voicemail on her personal cell.  «Good evening Mrs. Stiles, this Betty Olson.  I just wanted to tell you that the clean-up of your flat is done and that I’ll supervise the moving of your things tomorrow.  If there are modifications as to where things must go, please call me.  As we agreed, I’ll be waiting for you at 18h00 to give you your keys and finish the paperwork and billing.  Have a nice day».  Penny smiled.  She was happy to think she would be sleeping in her own bed tomorrow night; she was tired of the hotel.  Both Jon and Max already were in their new home since yesterday.  Unlike her, they still were married and, in the case of Max, still have kids at home.  Their wives supervised everything, but it wasn’t possible for Penny.  At least, she has enough money now without having to bother with a lot of stuff.  Betty was a professional home organizer and she did pretty much everything for her; even finding her a house cleaner!

Before she left, she texted Britanny, her daughter.  “Should be able to sleep in my own bed tomorrow.  How about you come to visit my new place soon?”  She sighed when she pushed the “Sent” button.  It was over a month since she got news from her daughter.  It’s true that she went abroad for the World Cup but still…  She started to get her things and went back to the hotel.  When she passed her room door, her phone beeped.  “Will call tomorrow.”  As usual, the response from the daughter was… short; very short…

When all the lights were out, Penny slowly drifted toward sleep, thinking of how good it would be to be in her own bed tomorrow night.  That was even without thinking about the opportunity to see Britanny again…

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When she walked into her office the day the season would begin, she was in a good mood.  First and foremost, the friendlies she had arranged have played well.  Despite losses right at start against PSG and Bayern, she got a good run afterward.  The losses were close calls and were punctuated with mistakes due to using a new formation; it wasn’t dramatic.  Some adjustments were made for game four and then game eight and she felt that now, the system was pretty solid.  Second, there was the unavoidable train of players who would have wanted, and rightly so she had to admit, to move to clubs playing in the Champions League.  Her speech had worked though; only four came and she only had trouble with two.  After review, she figured she got herself a year of peace and that was all she wanted.  Last, but by far not the least, according to Jon, about a third of the squad already supported her.  That was by far the best thing.  She wanted leverage early and she got it!  The arrival of Leon, Reuben and Domingo certainly helped accelerate all that; they all knew her and two of them were known as team leaders while the last was very well established…

Now, the real work would start and it would be a good test too:  Manchester City, on their grounds.  As she was putting her purse on her chair, she heard a familiar knock on her door:  «We leave in thirty?» she said without looking.

-                      «Yes Penny…» answered Jon.

-                      «Are all the players ready?

-                      They are into warm up at the moment.

-                      Any injury?

-                      None.  We’re all good to go.

-                      How’s morale?

-                      Pretty good.

-                      Are they confident?»  Jon took some time to answer.  Penny turned toward him.

-                      «I’d say there are some latent doubts…

-                      It worked well in the last two friendlies.

-                      Yes, but they weren’t the best of quality but now, it’s City…  They’re called for first place this year.

-                      You’re scared too I see…»  His own doubts were showing… a little.

-                      «I must admit the low block is giving me the creeps…»  She walked toward him.  When she was close enough, she put her left hand on his shoulder and smiled while thumping her crutch on the ground twice.

-                      «Clean sheets may be harder to get and the close calls might be more numerous but, I think we will do well because of the quality of the jumpers we have, because of Domingo who is in the top three goalkeepers in the world and because of whom we have in front.  Leon, you know full well all he can do.  As for Moreno, we saw what he can do.  I am sure those two will give us the goals we need to overcome the low block’s mistakes…»  His eyes showed that he wanted to believe her.  «Come on my old friend, can’t you trust me?»  He took a deep breath.

-                      «I trust your judgement on defence, as I learned to do.

-                      Then trust your own judgement on offence my friend, like I learned to do!» and she smiled.

When she set foot on City’s pitch, she knew the players were anxious to play; she had thrown another gauntlet in the pre-match talk and some were pissed!  That was fine for her.  The starting XI was composed of all her best and she was confident of leaving the place with a point on the table; she was shown wrong quickly.  Endri got booked sixteen minutes in and first blood was drawn six minutes later.   On a corner, Moreno scored.  Diego decided to kick at Leon that was rushing the box; his header was sent to Moreno’s feet, where he was pressuring the goalkeeper.  City just started to be more attacking and Penny reminded her boys of the message: let them in and counter attack; don’t care about ball possession.  On the twenty-ninth minute, the Citizens were playing with the ball for almost two minutes, incapable of breaching the defence when Damian Zieba, her left Interior forward, did what he was supposed to do.  At the top edge of the box, he tackled the midfielder who was going to shoot and stole the ball.  He instantly kicked it far over everybody, for Leon to grab.  He ran with it in the left half space up to the goal line before cutting it to Moreno who was all alone at the penalty area.  The coup de grace was given seven minutes into the second half.  Bienvenu Makengo, her right winger, went up to the six yard box to receive a header coming from Diego.  While all went to celebrate with Bienvenu, Diego took the time to look at Penny.  With a smug look, he winked at her and mouthed silently: “Take that boss!”  He knew she knew that he knew…

As the players were entering their dressing room after the match, they only saw a smiling Penny standing in the middle of the place.  Once all were seated, Penny started to talk:  «This was a nice opening act my boys!  Starting a season on a clean sheet, on the opponent’s grounds, is always nice.  Starting a season, with a clean sheet, against the called-to-be winner of the league on their grounds, is even better…»  She started to slowly walk closer to them.  When she was in front of Moreno, she continued louder.  «But starting a season against the called-to-be champions, on their grounds, with a clean sheet and a real good spanking?  Well, it is even better!  Good job boys!!!»  As she turned toward Jon, she gave him a wink, a smile and sparkling eyes…

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Penny’s personal phone started to ring; she saw it was her brother.  «Hello Bruce!

-                      Hey Penny, how’s it going?

-                      Busy as always Bruce!  But don’t try to obfuscate you no good brother!  I very well know why you’re calling!

-                      Alright then!  I want to let you know that I bought tickets and will miss a day of work and go to London, just to see you get trashed!»  She laughed!

-                      «That sounds promising!  Where are your tickets?

-                      I will be right behind the Spurs’ dug out, twenty-five rows upward!  I’ll be close enough to hear your wailing when we’ll crush your dreams!

-                      Good!  That way, I’ll ask my players to score an extra one, just for you… and I’ll know where to look to see you drown in a sea of tears!»

The first part of the North London derby was coming soon this year.  The Gunners were going to the Tottenham grounds for their third league game of the season.  Penny knew all there is to know between those two clubs.  Coming from Canonbury, she grew up loving Arsenal.  It is also why she went to their grounds to ask for a trial too!  All in the family were Arsenal fans… except for her brother!  Being a butt, he decided he’d preferred Tottenham when he was a kid.  It always was in good fun in the family though.  When she was playing, he was for Arsenal… for the women side only!  But now, it was different.  If he had supported her sister’s team every time, even when she was with Villa, he’ll not support Arsenal, her Arsenal, against the Spurs...  That was a line he could never cross!

She went back to her paperwork when another phone call interrupted her; it was PR.  «Hi ma’am, we have gotten a special request for an interview…

-                      Special request?»  Penny didn’t like the sound of that.

-                      «Yes, we got asked for a longer interview where you would have a talk about your special relation to the team and the rivalry with Tottenham…

-                      When do they want to do that?» A shameful silence took place at the other end of the line.

-                      «Huh… Tomorrow…  Tomorrow afternoon…»  Penny thought for a fraction of a second.

-                      «Let me get back to you on this, ok?

-                      Sure Ma’am!»

Penny got up and went straight to the number two pitch.  As she was walking, she stumbled into Sue, her former teammate.  The plan she had in mind quickly was amended.  «Sue!»  The woman stopped and saw Penny coming to her, smiling.

-                      Hiya Sarge!» she said with a bigger smile, referring to the nickname the players gave Penny at the time:  Sergeant Stiles.

-                      «Tomorrow afternoon, you have something big that you can’t move?

-                      Nothing I can’t move, why?

-                      Good, now you have!»  Penny explained her idea in about two minutes.  Sue was a bit surprised by the demand.

-                      «You’re sure about that?  Nobody wants to know about Facilities managers you know…

-                      Yes, but former players?  They’ll like it for sure!»  Penny extended her hand and Sue shook it.

Penny then resumed her trek toward number two pitch.  When she reached it, she saw that the training was going well.  She observed for a few minutes and then made a sign to Cenyr, her team captain.  He came to her while sipping a bit of water.  «You want to see me boss?

-                      Yes.  I want you and nobody else but you!» she said with a smile.  She told him the plan.  He liked the idea.

When she was going back to her office, she was wearing a satisfied smile.  Tomorrow, the interview would be less of a chore for her!  She would be able to talk about the long history of the rivalry with Sue being there for the past and then, to talk about the present; she would have Cenyr, the guy who’s been an Arsenal player for the last nineteen years, to explain the current signification of the derby.

When she called PR to tell them the new plan, she could sense that they weren’t very happy.  Nonetheless, what really could they do?  They would have the manager, the captain and an ex-player who would all talk about the same thing; the coming North London derby and what it represents.  When Penny hung up, she was satisfied.  She’s been working hard to avoid the long interview the PR department wanted her to make because since she arrived, she did none of those.  She wasn’t a fool; she’d have to do it at some point, which was like knowing she’ll go to a dentist for root canal…

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The first two games didn’t matter today and the League Cup one against Bristol City didn’t count.  A 3-0 win at City’s grounds or a 4-1 win at the Emirates against Everton or the win in Carabao Cup meant nothing.  Today, they were going to New White Lane.  After building their brand new stadium and naming the place “Tottenham Hotspurs Stadium”, a petition circulated among the fans; they wanted the name to be brought back to what it was.  The owners couldn’t do otherwise so, they renamed the place to its former name because they had a feeling they’d need to go to the games in armoured vehicles.  Penny was calmer she thought she’d be.  She still couldn’t believe how well that interview with Cenyr and Sue went and maybe it helped!  This had removed a ton of pressure on her shoulders while she made a good contact with Cenyr; he was the captain and she needed that.

When the bus turned into the underground parking at the Spurs grounds, she felt the players were a bit tense.  She’d need to address that.  As they were walking toward the visitor’s dressing room, she thought about her brother…  A broader smile appeared on her face exactly when she thought that she «…need to win this if only to be able to stick it to him next time I sees him…»

While the team was on the pitch for the warm-up, Penny stayed behind, as usual, to change her trousers, blouse and put on her blazer; she wouldn’t need a coat yet.  She still always used pants because of the scars on her right calf that she was shy about showing.  She wasn’t even swimming with peoples around her because of those scars so; wearing a skirt in a forty thousand plus stadium was out of the question…  She remade the ponytail and she was ready for the show!  When she got the official line-up, she knew she was truly ready.  When the players came back, she was in the middle of the dressing room.  Once all were calm, she started to talk in a subdued tone; she wanted to force everybody into being silent.  «We are well prepared and we know how they’ll come at us.  Focus on your tasks and all will be good.  Remember what Napoleon said:  “When the enemy is making a mistake, it is important not to interrupt him too quickly!”»  She saw some tiny smiles.  She love that quote and today, it was another perfect moment to use it; today was all about doing well with little possession.  All got up to go to the tunnel.  She was playing it cool but she still had a lingering doubt about one thing.  She had brought Cenyr in the line-up as a sub, but she knew that if it would come to it, he would struggle because the Spurs’ forwards were gazelles…  She couldn’t not put him on the line-up though… Could she?

The Statued Queen took her usual spot in her technical area and adjusted her tablet that was attached to her crutch while Jon came to her left.  Over the years, they had established a well-oiled routine by now.  He would do the gestures and screaming; she would do the talking…   As predicted, the Spurs played a 4-2-3-1 wide, mainly coming with a mid-block, and she was prepared for it.  Nonetheless, six minutes in, it was they who opened up the score with a header from a cross.  She made Jack Goodby, her defender, know that he had played bad on that one; he knew...  She told her players to settle down, that the game was still young.  The equalizer arrived twenty-four minutes later.  A play that started with a great goal kick offered a good chance to Moreno to do the work, and he did.  That small floating cross from the first post by Leon, toward the back post, was perfect!  Then, on a corner, Jack made up for his bad play at the beginning of the match and scored in the forty-third minute!  Sadly, a minute into stoppage time, the Spurs got the equalizer on a perfect counter attack.  When the referee called off the first half, she started to walk toward the dressing room.  As usual, nothing in her demeanour could say if she was happy or angry; it partly was where the nickname came from.

Penny let the players sit down before speaking.  «I think it is fair to say that… it wasn’t good enough, isn’t it?» she said in a very, very calm voice.  She saw that Leon, Diego and Domingo, the three former Villa players, knew that she was beyond angry; she counted on that.  She then retreated to her temporary office with Jon in tow to talk about the needed tweaks.  Four minutes before going back on the pitch, she arrived in the middle of the dressing room.  She explained the changes that were needed, told Tim Moore, her other central defender, to be cautious since he was under a yellow and closed the team talk by calmly saying:  «By the way, you know you’ll pay for it if you make the fans look bad today, huh?»  She then started to walk toward the door.

At the fiftieth minute, Andre Luiz, the right back she was able to buy just before the start of the season, got booked.  She told Reuben Portas, the sub, to prepare himself; there was no way she’ll keep a fullback on a yellow in a game like this one.  The sub was done a minute later.  Then, on the sixtieth minute, following an interception in midfield, Moreno repaid Leon with a fantastic through ball inside the box.  He didn’t miss his chance!  The stadium almost exploded with rage!  She kept her usual marble face and called some tweaks.  The pressure was intense and the Spurs fans were asking for blood while the Gooners were taunting them.  The Lilywhites came close to equalizing twice but they couldn’t finish the job; Domingo made two awesome saves there.  The referee called for five minutes of stoppage time and four minutes into it, Henrique Canastro, her winger in advanced position on the right, ended up at the goal line on the right side of the Spurs box.  He made a long floating cross to the far post where Bienvenu, the opposing side winger, made a nice header to Leon who was just outside of the six yards box.  Goal!  The Gooners that made the trip in good numbers became crazy in the stands!  This is when Penny slowly turned her head toward the crowd behind the Tottenham dug out, knowing her brother would be there even if she couldn’t see him.  She knew he could see her…

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September and its first international break was an opportunity for Penny to take a day off and get some time with her family.  She went to her dad’s flat, in Canonbury, to spend the day with him and with her daughter and her boyfriend.  Since her mum died, Penny was preoccupied with her dad.  When he woke-up one morning, he found his wife dead by his side; a heart attack.  It was almost a year ago.  He called Penny, who was in Brazil for a friendly with the Three Lions at the time.  She hopped on a plane and when she arrived home, she found a man that was fighting his own despair.  Britanny kept her mum in the loop about everything during transit.  Once all was done, Penny took some time to make sure that her dad would be able to stay in his home; it was what he wanted.  She knew though that the unexpected death of her mum was something that was hard to take for him.  After all, mum was only seventy-eight, it wasn’t exactly young but it wasn’t old either…

Penny rang the bell.  A few seconds later, she saw her dad through the white and filmy curtains, all smiles, coming to the door.  When he opened the door, the smell of roast rushed at her.  «Hi dad!» she said before giving the man a hug.  He responded in kind.  They both proceeded toward the living room so that she could drop her purse.

-          «It’s been a long time since that smell was within these walls…  I thought it would be good for you…» said dad.

-          «Just to see you is already something nice!  You found mum’s recipe?

-          Didn’t need to find it!» he said with a smile.  «I just didn’t have the heart to do it…»  Penny took her dad in her arms again.

After the hugs, they both went to the kitchen and she started to help prepare the table.  Britanny and her boyfriend were coming too despite the fact it only was the month of September, both were quite busy.  The daughter was starting her last year in Dentistry at King’s College and her first year with a specialization in facial reconstruction.  For what Penny understood, the daughter wanted to help peoples by rebuilding their face after big trauma.  The mother was proud…  As for the boyfriend, Steven, well, he was everything the mum could have hope for.  He was a very  serious boy who walked, in Penny’s view anyway, on the right path of life.  The son of a successful entrepreneur, he was finishing a second diploma at the London School of Economics.  He wanted to be a banker.  They both were working hard, she knew that.  Today, it would only be the second time since the World Cup that Penny had a chance to spend some time with them because of everybody’s workload…

When she was driving home that night, she felt uncomfortable.  After Britanny and Steven arrived, the chatting was light but all afternoon, the daughter kept the interactions with her to a bare minimum.  Every time she tried to engage conversation with her, on any subject, she had the impression that she was perceived has trying to pry her open, even on the most banal of subjects.  The boyfriend on the other hand, was very chatty on just about any subject.  He was a big football fan but was not a Gooner.  His team was Chelsea.  He grew up not far from Stamford Bridge, in Walham Green at the border of Fulham, and his dad, a few years back, even had shares in the club.  It wasn’t a stretch to say that he loved having an EPL manager he could talk to…

As soon as she was home, she changed cloths.  She then proceeded to make herself a Camomile tea and then read a bit.  After about an hour, she couldn’t hold it anymore.  She took her personal cell and texted the daughter:  “I would like to have a conversation with you…”  She then opened up her telly and accessed the server with the scouting library to pull out the last game of the first team she’ll play after the break: Leeds.

That match against Wolves was the first point for Leeds this season.  It ended with a 3-3 score.  Penny took numerous notes, as usual, while watching the game.  Once they were saved with the match, to be reviewed alongside the scout’s notes, she closed the telly.  The game would be a team parking the bus against another having to create space in a thigh areas.  She knew she had the players to do just that but if there was something that Leeds United got; it was a solid defensive unit.  They got two excellent jumpers and this time, even Leon and his towering height would have a run for his money to reach those balls…  She re-opened the file and put a note to the effect that maybe the way to play it would be to have the wingers come in the box to make shorter crosses.  She knew that the main problem here was that only her new right back, André, could go high enough without making her eat her insides while doing so.  He was fast enough and usually made the right decisions.  Henrique or Bienvenu, she haven’t decided yet who would play on the right wing this coming match, could very well stay closer to the half space here; leaving a nice channel for André to go into by hugging the side line and even dragging the right back too if she was lucky…

She checked her phone and saw that Britanny didn’t answer.  She sighed before getting up to go prepare herself a bath.  As she was dipping into the hot water, her mind started to wander toward the daughter and her behaviour…  When she went to bed that night, she still thought about her; it was past eleven and still Penny had no answer from her…

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After the September international break, and the thorough spanking she offered Leeds on their grounds, Penny finally had to give her first in depth interview.  The PR department has been relentlessly asking her to give this one. Since they still were angry at the way she dodged the one for the derby, she caved.  The interview was done in a one-on-one format with a journalist from Sky.  After the usual questions about her settling in and how she liked the area, he came at the style of play.

«Despite being at the top of the table now, with two clean sheets and a goal difference of twelve, some are a bit underwhelmed at the football you are offering.  Direct passing, often and not always I’ll say, and always with little risks, is seen by a lot of people as not being representative of beautiful football.  What can you say about that?

-                      Mike, peoples should get used to the fact that, in that particular aspect, I am no Arsène.  I never was Arsène, and will never be Arsène.  Football as an art form?  For me, it is as foreign as baseball can be interesting to watch…

-                      But in the later years with Aston Villa, and with the English National team, you offered very patient football, beautiful football.  Now, what some are saying is that all you offer is Championship level football».  Penny knew where this was coming from, and where the journalist wanted to go; she went at it head on.

-                      «Well, if what the fans want, before all else, is beautiful football before all else, I can give it to them.  I can also give them the team that didn’t go in Europe for the last four years too…  After all, the five managers the club had in the last six years all played beautiful football first, but they’re not here anymore, are they not?  They haven’t secured a table position permitting them to go to Europe either, have they not?  But it was beautiful football I’m sure…»  Before continuing, she leaned a bit toward the interviewer.  «You know what I am paid for Mike?

-                      To win?» answered the journalist sheepishly.

-                      «Exactly!  I have been brought here with one single mission: win games and take the club to Europe.  They didn’t say how they wanted it.  So, I do as I please as long as I do what the board wants, which is what most fans want: win games and go to Europe to fight with the big clubs!

-                      Football, still, is now played more in finesse, won’t you agree?»  Penny was getting tired by the line of questioning; she decided to attack even more because she knew where those exact comments came from and she wanted to close it all down.

-                      «What Sonny Bosz, the son of Peter Bosz can say about my way of winning is the least of my concern.  He can say whatever he wants; I’m not the one that has been shown the door at Villa, tarred and feathered, his dad, and himself was because they sucked!  I didn’t almost bankrupt the club by giving insane wages to undeserving peoples either.  Like daddy did with the Head scout, who also happens to be his son, while I wouldn’t have taken the boy as a scout in League 2!  I’m not the one that has been fired, f-i-r-e-d…» she spelled the word out, «…by eight clubs in my career either, his dad was!»  There was a very long story of animosity between Peter Bosz and Penny.  When he was fired from Aston Villa, she was the one who had to salvage the season and the club’s finances.  The feeling wasn’t lost on Bosz’s son either; especially since after running down his last scout contract with a League 1 team, he became an analyst on a network.  Since then, he spent half his time criticizing her for everything, from her lack of emotion on the pitch to the way she was making the players play.  «Besides, I will ask you this:  when a “former Head Scout” of a PL team can only find work for a just promoted to League 1 team, and when his contract is done, they don’t even bother to renew it, then he is recruited by the media as an “analyst”…  What does it say about the quality of the media you think?»  He was working for Sky; this is why she asked that.

The interviewer was taken aback by the ferocity but still loved it; he knew this would make good telly even if it was a crack against his own employer…  «Ok.  Let’s talk about the squad, if we may.  Some clubs are interested in some of your key players, Endri Muça in particular.  Manchester United is very vocal about getting him.  Is it something you would agree to do?

-                      Nobody is not for sale in today’s football.  The only thing that most don’t look too closely though, is the price to pay.  As far as Endri is valued to me?  Well, let’s just say that the Reds would need to show that they are willing to put a lot of quid upfront for him.  How much did they spend in the last window?  Over two hundred million?  Well, let’s just say they’d need to show how deeper their pockets could still be...

-                      Really?  Does this represent what he wants?

-                      He said he’d like to go there.  I sat down with him and we discussed things over.  There is an asking price that was established and nothing short of that will be accepted!

-                      What impact do you think his departure would have on the rest of the team, if it happens of course?

-                      Sometimes Mike, there are things you can’t control.  Do I want to keep him?  Yes!  Of course I want to keep him!  But if he wants to go, all I can do is try and get all I can for him; and I will!

-                      Is there anyone you wouldn’t be ready to sell?

-                      There are a lot of players, like Endri, I wouldn’t want to see leave but it’s not only about me, it’s about them too.  If all they want is leave, the only thing I can do is try to get the maximum amount of money that would benefit the club…»

Once the interview was over, Penny felt like needing a shower.  There were players she wasn’t ready to let go, at any price, but she knew that all she could do was to make them feel important… and hope nobody would be ready to cough up truckloads of money for them…

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It took two weeks for Penny to finally have a chance to discuss with Britanny; the daughter has evaded for a long time…  She arrived at Penny’s flat the night before the match against AFC Wimbledon in League Cup.  The mum, being busy as always, called a caterer and got a full meal delivered a mere fifteen minutes before the daughter would arrive.  As soon as the doorbell rang, Penny told Britanny to come in.  It only was the second time the daughter came at the new flat.  She made nice comments about the place when she came with Steven and grand-pa a few weeks back.  «Come Britanny, the meal is ready».  She put her jacket on the couch and went to her mum to hug her.  Penny saw that she was uncomfortable; it just made her more determined to get the talk she wanted to have.

-          «I saw you only have wins so far this season.  Congrats!

-          We got an easy calendar so far, other than City and the Spurs…  At least your uncle Bruce was spanked good!  I wasn’t able to see his face because I couldn’t find him in the crowd though…

-          Uncle Bruce came all the way from Edinburgh for the North London derby?

-          Yes!» and she laughed.  «You know how he always was a Spurs fan, don’t you?

-          Sure I know but the game was on a Friday… He missed work?

-          That’s what he told me».  Both sat at the dinner table.   Penny has asked to get a big plate of sushi; the daughter always loved those since she was young.

-          «I know why you want to talk mum…  but you didn’t have to call for sushi, you know?»  The apple never falls far from the tree with Britanny; she’s a lot like her mum.  Being direct with no sugar coating it…

-          «I want to know what is happening…  Have I done something?  Are the money transfers not arriving?»  The daughter started to choose the sushi’s she wanted from the plate.  Penny knew she only was stalling for time…

-          «It’s not the money mum… and no, you haven’t say or do anything…  It’s just…» and she stopped talking, looking at the food without eating.

-          «It’s just what?»  Penny was getting impatient fast.

-          «Dad remarried last month…»  Penny received the news like a punch in the gut.

Mark, Penny’s former husband, called it quit a little over six years ago.  The man who stayed by her side when she got her big car accident, who fathered Britanny, and who always stayed by her side simply was out of fuel at that point.  The never ending hours of Penny at the club, when she was with Villa, her incapability to be where “she was” when she was out of work because she always had her head back at club, the trips…  When the daughter got her tumultuous teen years, he was the one that got her back on a better traveled path.  Penny was absent; even when she was there…  She still remembered the night he told her it was over.  He never got angry or dramatic; he was just completely out of energy.  All has been said, many times, but the woman manager never heard anything.  At that point, Aston Villa was at the top of the league for the second year in a row, they won the Carabao Cup and were in the FA Cup semi-finals while running a dramatic Champions League run after defeating Barcelona at Camp Nou in the quarter-finals…  Penny took some time to recover from the blow.  Both women eating in silence for a long time…

«Is that the only reason why you kept so much distance between us in the last year?» asked Penny.

-          «I know it since Christmas.  Dad asked Mary when Steven and I went to Hereford during the holidays…»  Britanny wasn’t in the habit of closing herself like that.  She was usually pretty talkative with her mum when it comes down to emotions between them.  This was a shock for Penny to discover that the daughter was silent for so long…

-          «Britanny, when did I ask you to hide things from me?  I thought we agreed to tell each other everything…»  The daughter didn’t like the phrase.

-          «It’s hard to talk when you’re not there or when your mind is everywhere but where we are when we meet!

-          Listen, I know I am absent minded…  You know I am not the best mum because I let my job come between us…  but I think you know I love you… no?

-          It has nothing to do with that…  It has to do with how am I supposed to talk with you if your head is never where it should be?  Since you got your job at Villa, even on holidays, you were only thinking about the club!

-          I’m here, now…

-          Well, take that then!  Dad loves another woman for three years now and she is pregnant.  She is barely thirty-three and she wanted a baby so, dad gave her one!»  Mark was fifty-one…  «And, by the way, Steven asked me to marry him and I said yes.  We think of marrying next June…»  It took Penny some time to absorb the second blow. 

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With the arrival of the month of October, Penny’s Arsenal still was cruising.  Since the beginning the season, they have known nothing but wins.  The season opener against City still was the highlight because so far, other than them and Spurs, they got an easy calendar and they wouldn’t have a very difficult match before the beginning of November when they should meet Manchester United.  The next match would be against Ipswich, on 17 October, and it would be the first televised game from the Emirates this season.  The two other games that were on the telly so far were away and had been the opener and the North London derby because… of course the derby needed to be be televised!

Just before the game against Brighton, on Saturday 2 October, which would also be the last match before the international break, Penny got confirmation about her first signing for the coming winter window.  After some work, she finally secured a young player that was full of promises:  Andre Aas.  This twenty-one years old Norwegian midfielder was exactly what she wanted.  He would never be a superstar but he would be a more than decent box-to-box midfielder and she desperately wanted one!  She had to trigger the release clause to steal him from Bristol City, who was in Championship, but she didn’t really care.  In the grand scheme of things, seventeen million pounds wasn’t that much.  She had another young midfielder in her sight: Francisco Amo.  He also was twenty one and since he was playing in Portugal, she was pretty sure she could have him on the cheap…  This was something she had to consider because with only seven million pounds remaining in her transfer budget, she needed something on the cheap.  He primarily was a deep lying playmaker but since he had good mental abilities, she wanted to convert him into a basic midfielder.  If something had crept up since she arrived, was that Endri, her second most important midfielder, had some shortcomings, especially regarding pressure.  He was good but, in the two big games, she saw that he didn’t performed as well as he should.  After some talks with the coaches who were at the club before she arrived, it wasn’t that much of a surprise, but a deeper review with the analysts showed that yes, especially when it was time to be good, his performances were dipping.  It wasn’t catastrophic but still, he definitely was showing signs that he had problems with pressure.

After the international break came time to play Ipswich and she decided to bring a mixture of regular and some rotation players.  The Tractor Boys had a good start of the season, yes, but they still were a team called for the bottom five of the table.  A 4-2-3-1 was her choice if only because Ikechukwu Nwokolo couldn’t play anywhere but as an AMC.  Leon took a knock with the Three Lions so she decided to keep him out of the line-up.  Moreno would be the front man.  The match was a lacklustre one.  The Blues parked the bus… even going as far as playing striker less!  Only twelve minutes in, Endri got almost knocked out of his shoes so she brought in Diego.  It took a superb ball holding from Moreno, at the edge of the box, on the seventy second minute to finally get the goal.  Ikechukwu got his chance and made sure not to miss it.  Other than the goal, nothing good came out of the match.  «Missed passes, bad decision making…» said Penny to the players after the game.  «In other words, you guys didn’t played at the level you are supposed to on attack!»  The only comfort she got was that they let them fire only three times on goal; two of the shots being free kicks!

The following day, as scheduled, Jon, Max and she made a thorough review of the players’ performances since the beginning of the season.  Max was used to this sort of exercise; he’d done many of them with her.  First, Domingo was performing very well, conceding only four goals, Carabao Cup included.  For the central defenders, Tim, Reuben and Jack performed well but not great.  The trio made eleven mistakes so far but none leading to goals.  Jason Gillespie and Cenyr, the two subs, did ok when they were needed.  What she noticed was that the captain really was showing his lack of speed.  For her fullbacks, Ruben and André performed very well, especially the latter!  He was a good signing for sure and his speed and decision making were displayed time and over with runs on the flank that created all sorts of problems for the opponents.  On the left side, Pablo Fernandez and Alberto Ramirez did what they were supposed to do in an ok fashion but nothing exceptional.  In midfield though, the story was very different.  Diego demonstrated, game after game, that he indeed was a world class player!  Only two games out of the ten played so far, did he didn’t shine…  Endri played well also but never in the manner of Diego; he was good for sure but just not that good.  Finally, Takashi Kumashiro, her rotation midfielder, did very well when he came in.  He pretty much was a vertically shorter version of Endri.  He played better but his jumping reach put him in all sorts of situations that weren’t the best.  His mental abilities, his vision and decision making were truly remarkable though…  On the wings, one on each side performed above expectations:  Damian on the left and Bienvenu on the right.  The best thing was that the latter also have some defensive skills; she liked that!    In front, Moreno and Leon, literally, were on fire!  The former scored eight goals so far and assisted in three others.  As for the latter, he got six goals but was the provider of over twenty chances for Moreno; six of them becoming assists!  As for Abdelaziz, he did his duty exactly as expected.  He only got three goals so far but he managed to get four assists!  Ikechukwu did ok but since he only played the lesser teams, she wasn’t convinced…

First Table of the Season

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I got certificate error yesterday so, delay.

 

On the first day of November, Penny was in a training review meeting with Jon, Andy and Tim.  «I think it is time for us to move onto a different regimen» she told her coaches.  «Jon, I think we’ll need to go into refining our attacking transitions before we’ll need to lighten up the load for the winter crunch.

-          Ok Penny» answered the Assistant Manager while taking notes.

-          «Also…» she continued, I will need you to put more tactical training up to the next international break.  You know that the game against Villa will be after it and I have the nagging feeling it will be hell on earth…»

Jon knew exactly what she was talking about.  Cynthia O’Flaherty, the former Leeds United manager took on the job at Villa.  This would be the first game, ever, where two female managers in a top league, would meet, face to face.  Since the end of last season, when O’Flaherty got Leeds promoted, lots of noise in the media was made about the fact that the two would meet soon since Penny’s appointment to Arsenal was official at the time.  When the season began, there always were references to the match, here and there but lately, the hype machine was slowly building up since the match was scheduled on the 27th, at the Emirates, and it would be televised because… of course it was.  He already saw that the event was starting to influence Penny’s behaviour; he knew his boss well…

Penny changed the subject:  «By the way, I want to tell you guys that I got the confirmation yesterday night: Franisco Amo will arrive at the beginning of the next transfer window!»  It was Andy that talked first.

-          «Really?»  She nodded.  «Damn!  Congrats on the signing!

-          Wasn’t a walk in the park, I can tell you that!» she said.  «The youngster knows what he’s worth…»  All chuckled.  «…but I think that with Andre Aas, I may have found the players I wanted to have in the midfield to play alongside Diego or Endri.

-          You’re planning to go toward a 3-5-2?» asked Jon.

-          «Somewhere down the line, most probably» she answered.  «Not until the end of the season anyway; we have a lot of wingers here…»

Once Andy and Tim left for their training sessions, Jon stayed behind to talk alone with her.  «Penny, I know that those two young midfielders are potential box-to-box midfielder; I talked with Max…»  Penny smiled at him.

-          «Can’t I do anything without you too talking about it?»  he laughed.  «We have two excellent and one outstanding wingers and we are doing better than expected now, I won’t change anything before the end of the season. I still am not fixed on some players yet…

-          Like?

-          Ikechukwu for one… but anyway, there is no reason to break anything yet».  Her face changed; she became very serious.  «At some point though, I am thinking to go toward a narrow system, yes…»  He looked at her and saw that the words she said didn’t really convey the intention; she would do it for sure.   He didn’t mind.  He learned to like narrow systems since they got so much success since they put those on the pitch.

-          «You coming to the training session?» he asked, changing the subject.

-          «Nope, I have a meeting with the scouts in ten minutes and then, I got summoned by the big honchos…»  Jon was caught off guard.

-          «Why?  We are flying over everybody!  We won all the games we played!»  She smiled.

-          «I know, but my guess is, they’ll want to talk about money…

-          Didn’t you tell me last week that all our expenses were within the budgets?

-          Yes, I did.  Amo’s signing was so tough because of that.  My transfer budget was at the limit.  The wage budget is still under by about twenty million pounds but the transfer budget is empty now».  She made him a mischievous smile.  «Maybe they still think that to bring you with me was too expensive?»  and she laughed.

-          «Can you really live without me?» he asked.

-          «Nope!» she shot back, smiling genuinely at him.  «Hey, it’s not like I went overboard;  only the former Assistant Manager got canned.  I changed nobody else and only filled the vacancies, like Max in the Analysis department…  Anyway, you remember when I told you at the beginning of the season about the wages at the club?

-          Huh huh…

-          Well, I think reality bit them in the arse.  Can you imagine that, other than the players, we have four scouts with a minimum of seven hundred thousand pounds per annum in our scouting team?

-          You’re pulling my leg!

-          Nope.  And those are scouts; I’m not even talking about the Head scout.  He’s over a million.»

When Jon left Penny’s office, he was shaking his head in disbelief…

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Penny entered the conference room and saw that along Kim, there also was the other Managing Director, Randy Ooms and another man she never saw before.  Kim got up of her chair and came to greet her.  «Hi Penny.

-          Hello ma’am.»  Kim didn’t waste any time and waved Penny to a chair while going back in her own.  Before sitting down, Penny shook hand with Ooms who got up as well and the unknown man.

-          «Bang up start we got Penny!» said Randy.  She smiled.  «Let me present you Hans Willems.  He’s the Chief Financial Officer of the group.

-          Nice to meet you sir» said Penny as she was shaking his hand.  She knew the meeting would be about finances now…  When all were ready, it was Kim that started the meeting.

-          «First Penny, I want to congratulate you too for the wonderful beginnings!  We all are excited by what we are seeing on and off the pitch.  The games are very entertaining and it is evident that the players are happy.

-          Well ma’am, you hired me to make them perform…

-          As true as this may be, Penny…» said Randy.  «It is clear that there is more to it.  We can see that when the players go on the pitch, they are confident.  This is not what we saw in the last years…»  Penny started to feel uncomfortable under the praises.

-          «I don’t think I’m doing anything else than my job sir… but thanks.  I’ll convey your feelings to the players.

-          «We know that you don’t like praises…» said Kim who started to know Penny.  «…but it doesn’t change the fact that you clearly have a big impact on the team!»  Penny was on the verge of reddening.  Luckily, the boss changed the subject.  «Anyhow, we have a money problem at the moment…

-          We are running in the red since the last two months and it will deepen very quickly…» added the CFO.  Penny went defensive instantly.  Looking right at Kim, she answered back.

-          «Ma’am, I respected all the limitations you gave me and…» Kim lifted both her hands in the air to interrupt her.

-          «We know Penny, we know.  You transfer budget is almost empty but your wages are still thirty million pounds under budget, we know…

-          Ma’am for the staff…»  It was Randy who interrupted her this time.

-          «Penny, we know that nothing is your fault, alright?  You asked for only one staff to quit so we needed to pay a severance package and that you still filled only positions you felt were crucial because there are still vacancies in numerous department.  Nonetheless, we are in the red already and we need to take some actions.

-          First Penny, know that if we are here, it is because it is becoming more than problematic and, according to our numbers, continuing down this line would mean that even if you would win every cups and leagues?  We wouldn’t get enough money to fill back the losses…»  said Kim.  Penny was stunned.  She knew what she saw at the beginning of the season seemed to be… problematic… but this much?

-          «Ma’am, what are you telling me, exactly».  It was the CFO that talked.

-          «First, about transfer revenues?  We will let you keep only forty percent of them…»  Penny wasn’t surprised.  She knew it usually was the first step taken by clubs.  «Second, know that my team and me are actually polishing all the numbers and we’ll issue you a copy of them.  What we are thinking to do is to freeze all budget’s modification and hires of any kind…»  Penny knew that this sounded like the types of measures that were a bit… desperate.

-          «What do you want me to do?» she asked.

-          «To be aware of it… for start!» said Randy.

-          «I think you want more than that sir… Tell me, ok?  Don’t try and stuff me…»  Penny quickly saw that Randy clearly never had an employee telling him to not lie to him.  It was Kim that talked.

-          «Penny, for now, we asked for this meeting to make you aware of the situation.  If there is something that can be done on your side, please feel free to talk…»  Penny felt that Kim decided to be honest… well, more honest…

-          «Ma’am, first, if you can give me the numbers, not only my budgets, it would help me understand the magnitude of our money problem, ok?»  Kim nodded.  «I accept the slash in the transfer revenues and won’t fight over it.  What I am asking you though, is to give me some time to try and figure out what I can do on my end…  Let’s say, the end of the international break?»  Penny saw the three of them look at each other.  It was the CFO that spoke first.

-          «In the situation we are now, three weeks is a lot of time…

-          She can’t sell players in five days…» Kim shot at Hans.  Penny now knew what they wanted of her.

-          «Is Wednesday the 17 would be possible for you?» asked Randy to Penny while looking at his calendar.  She didn’t have a choice now.

-          «Alright sir, Wednesday the 17.  I shall bring you a plan but I would need the numbers the day of the Manchester United game, no later than that.

-          When is that game?» asked Hans.

-          «Next Saturday» Penny answered.

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Posted (edited)

When Penny entered her office on Saturday, she was in a foul mood.  Not only she felt stress from today’s game but she also felt an added layer of it because of the financial situation of the club.  Jon was the first person she talked to after the meeting with the big honchos and knew exactly what was at stake.  She also told Niall, the boss of the Analysts that she would need to borrow Max for a special project in the coming weeks.  Penny told Jon that he and Max would make the player reviews with her.  She wanted the decisions be made with the help of peoples she already knew she could trust to not have emotional biases toward the players at the club…

She needed to focus on the game now though.  She and Jon worked a lot on the tactical preparation and she knew it would be a tough game.  So far, Manchester United played mostly a 4-2-3-1 and usually put more pressure with their left flank.  It wasn’t surprizing, really.  With Santi Nunez, despite his thirty-three years of age and a decline in physical attributes; he was smart and had the best technical attributes in the league!  Being primarily a right winger, Wesley Sneijder, the manager, often uses him as an inverted wingback on the left side.  She knew he was one of the biggest threats, especially when he was making driving runs in the half space from the midfield line…  Penny was worried for the second time this season; it was against the two Manchester teams!  Both Jon and she focused the training on defence this week and she took extra time with André, her right back.

«Ok boys, listen up!» she started the team talk before going on the pitch.  «Be aggressive but be smart, ok?  André, Diego?  Make sure you use your heads, ok?»  Both nodded at Penny.  «Henrique, when you drive deep without the ball, don’t go too deep; make sure to stay close to Nunez…»  Henrique Canastro, her right winger in advanced position made a thumbs-up.  «As for you Leon and Moreno, be sure to make those shots count!»  The forwards smiled at her; they had done exactly that all season so far…  «Now, let’s go out there and hammer the second team of Manchester!»  All the players got up and clearly were pumped.  As the players left the dressing room, she went to Jon and murmured:  «I’m scared of playing open like that but I think we’ll discover a lot about our players…»  He looked at her and nodded discreetly.  He very well knew what she was talking about.  She wanted the players to play an almost all out type of game.  He knew the risks and he knew she knew but he felt that she wanted to make a point with the players.  Undefeated so far, it was time for them to show they could deliver when it was needed too and in another mentality…

When she arrived on the pitch of Emirates, she saw that the place was full again.  Since her arrival, every competitive games played here were in front of a full stadium.  As good as it felt, it showed how problematic the finances must be…  She quickly forced herself to focus on the game.  The line-up of United was the one she thought would be played and she felt a bit confident despite her worries.  It took twenty-four minutes for the Gunners to open up the score.  The run of goals on dead balls continued with Henrique making a perfect floating ball in the box on a free kick.  Leon was the one to make the touch, directing the ball straight to Tim Moore’s foot at the penalty area.  Goal!  Fourteen minutes later, Moreno forced Douglas Pazos, the Reds’ goalkeeper to kick far in front where André made a great reception.  He quickly passed the ball to Henrique who, from ten yards into the Reds’ half, lumped the ball over the defence for Leon.  He fired an unstoppable shot and brought the score at 2-0.  On the forty-second minute, Endri had his pocket picked at the edge of United’s box.  The counter attack was savage and Tim missed the interception.  Davide Rinaldi brought the score at 2-1. 

In between the halves, Penny told her players that they were working well.  She told Endri that he wasn’t playing his best football with four errors so far.  He acquiesced.  The continuous work on free kicks and corners paid off again in the second half.  From the right side, Diego kicked the ball right at the penalty area but a Red central defender headed the ball out.  Luckily, the ball arrived right at the feet of Endri who was in front of the box.  He made a pass to Leon who was just outside the six yard box, on the right.  Score!  3-1 with twenty-four minutes to play.  Sneiijder made his three subs at the same time at that exact moment.  From a 4-2-3-1, it became a 3-4-3.  Penny quickly shouted tweaks.  On the sixty-eighth minute, Santi Nunez, now on a right winger position, made a perfect cross to Callum Birch, the striker.  3-2.   Five minutes later, Diego got tackled hard in midfield and Penny was forced to pull him off.  Takashi Kumashiro took his place in midfield.  She decided to make another substitution and brought Ruben Portas in place of André as a right back; the latter starting to piling up little mistakes.  Four minutes later, Leon made a perfect low cross to Moreno who was charging the penalty area.  Goal! 4-2.  Penny started to breathe a little more.  At the eighty-four minutes mark, Reuben missed an interception and Birch scored his second goal.  4-3.  Then, on the ninetieth minute, recuperating a ball in midfield, Nunez made a devastating through ball to Danilo Luiz, the other striker that came in as a sub.  Score!  4-4.

When she retreated to the dressing room, Penny was livid.  She waited for the players in the middle of the room.  Jon arrived with the stats sheet and the players saw her scanning it when they arrived.  «We got lucky the referee didn’t add more than two minutes of stoppage time, aren’t we?»  She saw a lot of players looking at their feet; the defenders in particular.  «Reuben, I don’t know where your head was on that ball…»  She sighed heavily.  She started to pace the floor, slowly and silently except for the regular thump of her crutch.  After about a minute, she just added «At least our forwards did their jobs today…» before going to her press duties…

Edited by Rien102

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The seventieth of November, Penny was walking to the meeting with the bosses.  After spending ten days with Jon and Max, going through every player reports, hours of gameplay footage and evaluating each performance, she finally was able to formulate a plan.  The international break, which she hoped would have given her a week-end off to see Britanny and her dad, proved to be nothing but wishful thinking…

When she entered the conference room, she was accompanied by Jon.  She saw the both Managing Directors were there, Kim Franssen and Randy Ooms, with Hans Willems, the CFO.  All shook hands before sitting down.  It was Kim that talked first.  «Penny, before we start, I want to tell you that the corporation decided that if your proposition does not coincide with our financial objectives, a ban on transfer will be applied, and the wages will be frozen for players and staffs».  She gave Penny a small sign of hope though by adding «…but I am sure you did your best.

-          «Thank you ma’am» answered Penny.  She took a sip of water while Jon started the slideshow of her proposition.  «After reviewing everybody in the club and by gauging the depth of the financial situation, I have prepared this proposition.  As of right now, we have seven of our players who are looked at by several clubs.  Three players being called as priority targets by big clubs:  Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern.  What I believe…  No, sorry, what we believe…» pointing to Jon, «…is that there is a clean-up in the wages that can be done but not only in the senior squad.  I understand that one of the staple of the club is to have many players in the U23 squads and to go heavy on loans for them to develop.  The problem is, the squad itself, if it is well furbished in players, is very thin on quality prospects for the senior squad.  We think that the reason why talent is so scarce is a direct result of the instability in the coaching staffs in the last eight years.  The succession of managers, coaches and Head of Youth Development all influenced the situation in a significant way.  Hence, what we propose to you is a plan that is two fold…» she got interrupted by Randy.

-          «You are saying that the U23 squad doesn’t have quality in it…  On what scale?

-          Well sir, after thorough evaluation, we believe that from the fifty-four players that are currently part of the squad, excluding the three older players who doesn’t have the level to play with the Senior squad, only eight to ten probably will have the level to play in the Premiere League but only three may be of sufficient level to be with us specifically».  She saw the effect of the statement.

-          «Three?»  It was Kim who spoke.

-          «Yes ma’am.  As I said, the instability and the… irregular quality of the training that ensued is most probably the cause for it all…

-          Ok.  Continue please» said Randy.  His demeanor showing that he wasn’t a happy camper.

-          «Well, first, we will offer on free transfers a lot of players from the U23 squad.  Half of the squad, composed of 54 players I’d like to remind you, is already past twenty one so, this mean that to even use them as emergency subs wouldn’t be possible since we already have a full registration for the Senior squad.  The goal here is simple:  to shave as much on wages as we could, period.  It wouldn’t be a lot overall, I know, but I think that considering the situation, anything will be welcome…»  She looked at the CFO when she said that and saw that he seemed to agree with the statement.  I don’t have any target except to keep the players that have at least a chance to be Premiere League level and to those that we think would never be higher than Championship; it will be a one way ticket to anywhere who will want them.  I won’t waste time haggling over a few thousand quid for transfers; I have bigger fish to fry!»  Kim smiled.

-          «We can agree on that!

-          For the Senior squad, it’s going to be much different.  It’s more than wages; it’s a deep hole that needs to be filled up as much as possible.  So far, five keys players are followed by big clubs and three, as I said, has been targeted as priority signings.  I won’t accept to lose our two best forwards, Leon and Moreno, under no circumstances.  They are at the top of every possible positive league stats: in goals, assists, passes, chances created, chances converted, etc…»  She saw Randy lift a finger but she didn’t give him a chance to speak.   «Sir, Leon is the second best forward in the League.  Moreno is on the short list to be Ballon d’Or.  What we will do instead, is change our tactical formation.  With the two young midfielders who are coming in and by incorporating the only decent central defender we have in the U23 squad, we will go toward a narrow system.  We have five wingers at the club, one is twenty-four years of age, another is twenty-five but the other three are at least thirty.  Damin Zieba is wanted by Manchester City, he’s twenty-five and since they want him a lot, I think he would be the best money-maker for us.  Bienvenu, he’s got sufficient defensive chop to be converted into a wingback.  This means that we have three wingers we can, and must, let go:  Henrique Canastro, Jesus Angel De la Torre and Ikechukwu.  The latter is more of an advanced midfielder but he got played a lot as a winger.  Not to mention the fact that Southampton wants him a lot…  If we convert Bienvenu as a wingback, this means we’ll need to sell one of our fullbacks.  So, overall, by selling five players, one who could bring a lot of money, another who should bring a good amount too, we think we could bring around, at least, a hundred million pounds in the club’s coffer…»  She saw that they were a bit under shock.

-          «A hundred million?» asked Hans.

-          «Yes sir» answered Penny.  «If we are lucky, maybe a hundred and thirty…

-          Are you sure about this?» asked Randy.

-          «Sir, I can’t be sure.  Nonetheless, we know what our players are worth on the market.  The thing is, since we want to sell them, their price usually drops a little.  We are pretty sure to be able to get a very large amount for Damian though.  City is continuously calling him their target and they already made an offer last week, which I rejected after talking to Moonchi, our Director of Football.

-          What?»  It was Kim that talked.

-          «Yes ma’am, it was rejected.  First, I wasn’t sure of the plan at that stage.  Second, it gave me an idea of the starting point for negotiating.  They offered sixty million total but with lots of instalments and “ifs”, like winning the League, cups, and the such…  Since it was their first offer, it was very low.  My guess is that I can drive up to one hundred I think…»  She saw Hans’ eyes widened at the number.  She decided to push further.  «They have a very healthy balance apparently and I think I will drive them to pay a big lump without instalments, if I can of course…»

Four days later, Penny got called by Kim to come see her.  The plan was accepted.

 

Finacial situation on November 6th, 2038

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The date, 27 November 2038, would be written in bold fonts in all football history books.  It was the first game in top level leagues where two female managers went head-to-head in a competitive match.  Emirates was full and the Aston Villa section of fans was bigger than usual; the club releasing one thousand more tickets in Clock End.  When Penny stepped on the pitch, followed by four cameras, she walked, limp and crutch, straight to her technical area and stayed there.  Cynthia O’Flaherty, the new Villa manager did the same.

The former Villa manager accepted an offer to go to Real Hispalis, in La Ligua, in the summer after promoting the club to PL.  This meant that the club who grabbed the Championship trophy, one point ahead of Leeds, got their manager spot open.  They made a move toward O’Flaherty, who was managing Leeds at the time, and she said yes.  So, after five years with Leeds, where she proved she was more than capable, she got her first chance in the Premiere League with the same team that offered Penny her first shot.  The only difference was that O’Flaherty was coming anyway and, as opposed to Penny, she didn’t come in with seven games to play for a team that was in the red zone.  Aston Villa was in the relegation zone while Arsenal was at the top of the table, it’s true, but the stakes were elsewhere.  Penny knew it better than anybody else.  She was just happy that the match wasn’t done last week, after the long international break. 

The training leading to the game was harsh and she pushed her players to the brink of insanity.  Some said she showed respect, some like Bosz said it was overkill, but Penny put her very best XI on the pitch except for Endri and Damian, both being injured.  There was no way she would accept anything but a win today…  Before the game began, she said something she never thought, in her entire life, she would ever say:  «I want to ask you a favour…  No, demand a favour…  Score goals, yes.  Win, yes; nothing else than a win tonight is acceptable but, I am demanding you not to celebrate a lot please, if not at all…»  She saw the players’ faces change a bit.  «…You all know what it is for me today…  So please, just don’t…»  As the players went to the pitch, Leon, Domingo and Diego, of course came to her and murmured their agreement.  What happened next caught her off guard.  Reuben and Cenyr both came to her as a pair and, as captains, told her that all was already agreed among the players since yesterday...

Leon drew first blood twenty-eight minutes in.  Jesus De la Torre recuperated the ball in the Gunners’ territory and initiated the counter attack.  Switching the ball on the other side to Henrique, the latter brought the ball almost to the goal line on the right side of the box before floating the cross to Leon who made a perfect header.  1-0!  The Emirates exploded with joy but the players didn’t celebrate at all.  Instead, Penny saw the XI come to her, with a determined expression and all just put a hand on her shoulder before going back to their positions.  Leon, who was the last, in the line of players told her in the ear:  «I got your back boss…»  On the sixtieth minute, Leon showed his skills again and drew the two central defenders toward him.  The Villa left back hesitated between covering Moreno, that was midway to the penalty area by now, or Henrique, that was driving into the box.  When Jesus made the cross, Henrique was all alone and scored the second and last goal of the match!  The players again did the same procession toward Penny but this time, the fans, for a fair number of them anyway, didn’t scream in happiness; they understood.  The rest of the match, the Gunners did nothing but preventing the Villans to make any serious push toward the goal…

When the referee called the end of the match, Penny looked at Jon, by her side, and her eyes filled up.  The stress and the sudden realization that all was over was too much to handle.  Her players came to her and all hugged her in succession.  When all the emotions were dried out, she went to meet O’Flaherty on the other side.  Both Gooners and Villans’ fans and players started to cheer when the two women met, for all to see.  Penny shook O’Flaherty’s hand vigorously: «Come…»  Penny guided the Aston Villa manager to the middle of the pitch, holding her hand all the way.  She faced the Villans’ fan section in the Clock End and offered them something she felt was needed:  she bowed to them while holding O’Flaherty’s hand.  The latter was surprised by the action but, with a few seconds of delay, did the same.  Both women than shared an embrace in front of the crowd, who was going completely nuts, and the numerous telly cameras and photographers that were surrounding them.  Penny than made a sign to the referee to come to her.  When he was there, she asked:  «Is your PA mic still working?

-          Of course!» he answered.  Without a word, he handed Penny the earpiece with the mic attached to it and pushed the ON button.  She started to talk to the crowd.

-          «Arsenal is where I grew up… but Aston Villa was the club that offered me my big chance…»  The crowd was ecstatic.  Penny dropped the mic and turned toward O’Flaherty.  As she offered her another handshake, she said in her ear:  «Villa is a great club and I am certain you will be able to achieve great things!»

The reporters on the pitch took hundreds of pictures of the two women facing the crowd and the players.  It took about five minutes to have all the players from both teams to come to the managers and started shaking hands with each of them.  When the teams left the pitch, the crowd still was standing and cheering…

When Penny finally reached the dressing room, she sat down, exhausted and emotionally drained…  All her players came to her and gave her smiles and kind words.  Once all of them were at their bench, she stood up and went to the middle of the room.  She stood for a minute, just looking at them, in silence, before starting to speak:  «I will not say if the game was good or not; my head is just not there…  I will only say you this:  Thank you for the performance you offered me today and thank you for… well… for…»  She couldn’t finish her sentence, choking on the words.  Leon stood-up.

-          «Boss, you deserved nothing less than that today!»  The rest of the players stood and started clapping.  Emotions were high in the place and a single tear started to roll on Penny’s cheek…

 

 

For those who didn'T know, I made a short story specifically around this event.  You can find the first part of the story here, on FMS:  https://community.sigames.com/topic/471775-%C2%ABthis-is-my-place%C2%BB-short-finished/.

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The biggest clash in the EPL this season so far was coming at great pace.  For a week Penny prepared the boys for it and all were ready for the game against Chelsea; they were in second place, breathing down the Gunners’ neck…  Some were even eager to show their craft because last week, against Cardiff, it has been a close call; a 2-1 score line with the win secured only on the eighty-ninth minute.  After the match, she told the men that «…performances like the one you displayed today would make us lose our winning streak real fast against good teams…»

There also was a family twist to the match.  Steven, not Britanny, called her and asked if she could get him tickets for it.  She got the couple a pair of prime seat tickets right behind the Gunners’ dugout but, she warned him on the phone:  «You better come with neutral colours in there.  I have a name to hold on to!»  He laughed and told Britanny what she just said.  It took half a second for the daughter to tell her boyfriend that her mum would never joke about something like that…

Emirates was full again.  The game was televised of course and the media has been hyping it all week.  In the tunnel leading to the pitch, when she met Diego Simeone, the old man gave her a warm handshake.  They’ve met numerous times and she always had a great relationship with the him.  He asked her:  «I see you decided to throw everything at me today instead of next Wednesday for the League Cup Quarter-final huh?»  She laughed and he joined heartedly.  It was true though; next Wednesday’s planned line-up was pretty much her B team…

When the game started, the excitement was palpable.  Penny’s 4-2-4 against Diego’s 4-4-2 was ready to fight.  She quickly saw that Chelsea was favouring their left flank; the four first pushes were created on that side.  She quickly told André, her right back to be a bit more cautious.  It took twenty-nine minutes for the crowd to see the first goal.  Right in front of the Blues’ box, Moreno received a pass from Endri.  He quickly decided to move to the right flank while Henrique started rushing the box.  This move split the defenders and he found himself completely free in front of the net.  When Moreno decided to cross the ball to the penalty area, Henrique and Leon were there.  It was the latter that took the shot.  Goal! 1-0.  On the thirty third minute, Diego showed he was nothing but a world class striker.  In between a sea of players, he made a thunderous shot from the right side of the box.  Mario Oliveira, the Chelsea goalkeeper didn’t even move… 2-0!  When the Blues restarted the game, they got intercepted by André who, with a header to Diego in midfield, launched a ferocious counter attack.  When Jesus received the ball, on the left side of the box and started running to get himself into a crossing position, he was all alone.  At the goal line, he made a whipping cross to Henrique that was rushing the box, all alone at the far post because the two central defenders were marking Moreno and Leon at the penalty area. Goal! 3-0!  Penny looked at Jon who was jumping at her side!  As she was getting out of the pitch after the referee called out the first half, she looked at Britanny and Steven who were behind the bench.  If the former seemed happy, with her Gunners’ red kit, the latter wasn’t looking so good.  Penny just winked at them before disappearing in the tunnel.

During the half time break, she reminded her boys that the game was far from over and that they should remember to stay focused.  She felt that some players were starting to feel a little… too good.  She was right because three minutes into the second half, Radim Ceny, a midfielder, received a long floating cross at the second post and he was all alone… 3-1!  Penny saw Pablo Fernandez, her left back, look at her immediately; he knew he slept on the switch on that one.  She gave him a deadly stare…  On the sixty-second minute, André got book, she immediately told Ruben to warm-up fast.  Two minutes later, the sub was done.  When André passed by her, she held him and said:  «I can’t keep you there with a yellow…  I think you are a bit too… engaged at the moment».  He looked at her with a deadpan stare; it was clear he didn’t like the sub.  Pablo managed to repay his lapse in concentration on the sixty-fifth minute, by intercepting a dangerous pass.  He immediately passed the ball to Jesus who redirected it toward Moreno in midfield.  Seeing that the Blues right back was still out of position, he passed the ball to Leon who ran in the left channel.  When he finally crossed the ball into the six yard box, at the first post, Moreno was all alone; the goal was swift! 4-1!  Four minutes later, Leon received a nice ball from Moreno.  Despite having the two central defenders on his back, he was able to enter the box, controlling the ball perfectly.  When he was at the six yard box line, he placed a perfect shot in the right corner of the net… 5-1!  The Gooners were absolutely crazy in the stands… and with good cause!  Fifteen minutes before the end of the match, Moreno got tackled hard.  It took Penny three minutes to know that he couldn’t continue.  She told Takashi to go in midfield; she just wanted to hold on to the score.  When the referee called the game off after four minutes of stoppage time, the crowd was wild and the three thousand Blues fans were very silent…

Penny walked to Diego and said:  «Tough one Diego…»  He offered a warm hug and he murmured back at her.

-          «Tell me about it Penny…  Good game…  It shouldn’t be the same Wednesday though…» He smiled at her.

-          «I bet it wouldn’t…» she answered.  «Maybe it will be a clean sheet this time!»  They both laughed.

When she entered the dressing room, she didn’t waste any time and asked for the stats’ sheet.  She was looking at it when Jon arrived behind her:  «It was nice to play against someone who wasn’t parking the bus!»

-          «Yeah…» she answered back, showing him a stat.  «I told you the low block was working good…  Look at this: forty-six crosses and only three reaching a Chelsea player…  and they weren’t in decent position to do anything at that!

-          Yeah.  Jack and Reuben played a hell of a game today!»

She thought that everybody had a good game, even Pablo, despite his mistake.  Diego got a busy day too…  She knew though that she outplayed Diego Simeone because of one other stat.  Arsenal only got five fouls while the Blues got seventeen…  This meant that her boys weren’t caught off position often…  She felt good…   Real good…

 

Finances on December 1st, 2038

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On 21 December, Penny was walking toward Kim’s office.  Yesterday night, she received an angry phone call from her boss and got ordered to go see her first thing in the morning.  She already knew why she was summoned but she still was surprized about the reaction...  Anyhow, the media report wasn’t accurate and she was pretty sure the leak didn’t come from her side.

«Good day ma’am!» said Penny as she entered the office.

-          «Hi Penny.  Is the headline true?»  Penny smiled.

-          «Not entirely, no.  Yesterday afternoon, we did renegotiate the offer but not for the amount that was specified in the media.  The amount is one hundred and fifteen million».  Penny saw that her boss didn’t like it anyway.

-          «I thought you said Damian was off limit?

-          Yes ma’am, off limit at anything fewer than eighty million upfront.  It’s the same amount I established for Endri as well and this is why Manchester United didn’t come back to us.  Moonchi and Hans gave the go on the renegotiating for Damian.  I thought the DOF and the CFO kept you in the loop…

-          «I was coming back from the head office with Randy.  The first news we got was from the media and when we tried to reach you, your cell was closed.

-          Just muted ma’am.  And when you sent the text, I was in the shower after another seventeen hour day…»  She went to bed, exhausted, right after the shower and she saw the text only this morning because the phone was in the kitchen, on the charge.  Kim seemed to cool down a bit.  She made a conference call including Randy, Hans and Moonchi.  When all were on the line, Kim continued.

-          «Hans, how much, in total, we got as of today?

-          Without the Zieba deal, we are at fifty-six million pounds.  Fernandez got us thirty-seven and Nwokolo got us eighteen.  Both are set to leave for PSG on the first day of January.  There is also that young left back Brentford came in for but it should get us only a few thousand quid.

-          Is the figure in the media accurate?» asked Randy.

-          «No sir, as I said to Kim earlier, we asked for a hundred and fifteen million upfront with no sweetener of any kind.

-          What are the chances that City would accept?» asked Kim.

-          «From what I got, I think they’ll try to lower it a bit but we should get something close to one hundred… » said Moonchi.  Penny decided to chip in.

-          «Ma’am, When you called me for the meeting last month, you told me the club was in financial dire, right?»  Kim nodded.  «At the beginning of December, Mr. Willems sent me figures showing we were around eighty million in the red with an approximated loss of twenty million per month.  Am I correct sir?

-          «That’s correct.  As of today, we are around one hundred million in the red.

-          I say that we take that deal for two reasons…» Penny followed through.  «First, with only four players leaving, we could rebalance the books for January.  In wages, we should save about seven million for the rest of the season.  Overall, we would still end-up in the red but I think that getting about one hundred and fifty million pounds, right now, is what the club needs to do…»  She decided to be bold and a bit cocky.  «Besides, this is what you wanted, right? For me to sell players?  Well, I just did that!»  Silence took hold in Kim’s office.  Nobody on the phone, or Kim, dared to break it quickly.

-          «When will Manchester City respond?» asked Randy after a good while.

-          «My guess is tomorrow at the latest…» answered the DOF.

The conference call was terminated by Kim not long after.  She asked Penny to stay put; she obliged.  «Why Damian, specifically?» the boss asked.  Penny took some time before answering.  She was fuming at the money situation but knew there were things she couldn’t say…

-          «Ma’am, I would have preferred to sell Jesus de La Torre but who would pay for a thirty-two years old winger that got bought last year for forty million pounds?»  Penny saw that her boss really didn’t like the answer.

-          «Isn’t he worth that?»  Penny ate a few words before continuing.

-          «Ma’am, I think no player in the world is worth forty million in transfer fees if he’s thirty-on years old except if he’s a goalkeeper or Ronaldo or Messi.  Jesus is good, yes, but he started his normal decline already and, from what I saw of the scouting reports made at the time of the transfer, there already were concerns about his decline already happening…»  She thought she had sugar coated the answer enough for the comment to be swallowed.  She took a deep breath before continuing.  «And ma’am, do you know what I don’t want to be stuck into?»  Penny stopped talking; she absolutely wanted her boss to ask why.  After a few seconds of silence, Kim finally asked.

-          «What do you want to not get stuck into?

-          Ma’am, I don’t want to be stuck in the same position Arsène Wenger was stuck into when the club built the Emirates!  Because of the loan, for years, he was forced to sell his best players, year after year, just to keep the club afloat.  Damian is twenty-five and is worth all that money; even more if I thought I could afford to be more patient…  but I can’t.  I would also prefer to have him join a club outside of England but I can’t either.  City wants him, right now, and wants him bad!  If by selling a top winger I can hold on to one of the best striker in the world?  I will do it.  If by selling a winger I can hold on to one of the best midfielder in the league? I will do it too! If by selling a winger, it gives me peace of mind until the end of the season, moneywise at least, I’ll do it!»  She took another breath before hitting the final nail in the coffin.  «And, prepare yourself ma’am ‘cause at the end of the season, there will be a thorough clean-up of our wages…  Jesus?  If I only get twenty percent of what it cost the club to save a base salary of fourteen million pounds per annum before any bonuses, I will take it!»  She saw on Kim’s face that she didn’t like what she was hearing.

-          «Penny…»  Penny wasn’t in a mood to argue.

-          «Ma’am, I’m sorry, but it is the way I see things.  The CFO says that in player wages alone, monthly, we spend six millions pounds more than all our revenues put together.  You see the effects…  I already did house cleaning like that at Aston Villa ma’am…  I would point out that in my fifth season; they had a bank balance so large that they were able to build their new stadium without a single quid of loan…»  Kim’s eyes widened at the statement.  «Anyhow ma’am, that is my plan and if you’re not happy?  Just fire me!»

Second table of the season

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Penny was tired on this New Year day.  The club was on his way for Goodison Park to play Everton but also, it was the day of the departure of three players while she was welcoming two.  The negotiations with Manchester City over Damian Zieba’s transfer were harsh.  Contrary to Monnchi’s prediction, they weren’t able to finalize the transfer before two days after Christmas!  In the end, she was able to get all the money she wanted, in one single lump, and it would be welcomed in the Gunners coffers:  one hundred million pounds was the final number.  But still, the negotiations were a drag.  The thing with this transfer, other than the money, was that Zieba declared in the press he wanted to leave.  This he did the same day the media leak happened; it complicated the whole operation…  At least, Pablo Fernandez and Ikechukwu Nwokolo were now gone for PSG and those got closed rapidly; it brought another sixty million pounds to the club.  The other players that were leaving were from the U23 squad and were doing so mainly on a free or for negligible amounts of money.

On the other side, she got two young prospects that arrived.  First, there was André Aas and he was her ‘big’ transfer.  Except for his jumping reach, the rest she liked… a lot!  Determined, pretty agile, great in decision making and first touch; he would be a good box-to-box once trained.  The second one was, in her opinion, a steal from a Portuguese team.  Contrary to Aas, Francisco Amo was tall and had the jumping reach but his first touch was average at best.  With his high vision, decision making and positioning attributes, he would become the midfielder she was looking for; one with a defensive mentality without being a defensive midfielder itself that could see the opportunity for counter attacks as well!  Great things indeed, she expected from the young, nineteen years old…

Today though, there was tension because of the match itself and the fact that she was bringing the new tactic into the mix: her 3-5-2.  The fact that it was the fourth game in eleven days meant that she wasn’t able to work a lot on it with the players.  Something else was influencing this lack of training...  By playing City, Liverpool and Southampton in succession, second, fourth, and fifth position on the table respectively, implied that these were all tough games that needed special preparations themselves.  As for today’s opponent, Everton, they were eighth on the table right now and were on a good form run; winning four of their last six games.  With Moreno still injured with his fractured ribs and Leon being overplayed, she had to go with Abdelaziz upfront alongside Jordan Jones, a young poacher from the U23 squad she thought had potential.  She also had to put Ibrahim Boka in midfield because Endri got a severe knock against Southampton and was unfit to play…

«Don’t fret today, ok?» Penny said to her players in the dressing room.  «Today, play your game and nothing else.  Bienvenu?» she looked at her young winger she was retraining as a wingback, «…relax, ok?»  He nodded.  «It went well into training so don’t sweat.  Think of it as going a bit deeper to defend.  The rest?  You’ve been doing it for years as a winger…»  She wasn’t convinced that all would be good for him today; in training, he often hesitated…  «Defence?  Remember that an imperfect offside trap that foils a one-on-one is better than a perfect one that doesn’t prevent it!  Use your head and stay a tad higher on the pitch!  Come on now!  Go show why we are at the top of the table!»

The weather was atrocious, it was zero degrees Celsius, it was raining, and it was windy…  «What a way to earn a living» she thought when she arrived on the pitch.  Abel Ferreira, the Toffees’ manager put a 4-4-2 on the pitch.  She suspected as much.  When André Luiz past her, she stopped him:  «André, don’t forget to tuck in when the play transfers to the right…»  He smiled at her.  André was the first real transfer she did with Arsenal and he had given her everything she was hoping for.  With the retraining of Bienvenu, she transferred André on the left side since the former couldn’t play on his left foot at all.  He was a natural lefty anyway; it’s just that he has been played mostly on the right because he still was pretty good on his right foot.

The game started harshly.  Ten minutes in, Robin Richter, Everton’s left winger, made a long floating cross directly at the far post.  Domingo touched the ball with his fingertips but changed the trajectory.  It landed on the interior of the post.  Goal!  0-1.  When the boys retreated to the dressing room at half time, she saw the men being a bit disenchanted.  She knew this only was bad luck…  «Men, you did good out there.  This one is the unlucky goal of the year.  We are controlling the midfield well and they didn’t get a lot of opportunities.  You know those things happen…  Now, just go out there and do what you did all year so far: play with your chin up!»

Just before they went to the pitch for the second half, she subbed Jordan; the kid shot five times so far but didn’t even come close to even be on target.  Leon took his place.  On the sixty first minute, on a free kick, Everton got a scrappy goal…  0-2.  Penny was trying to get the boys to react but it was too little too late.  On the seventieth minute, Reuben got one of those brain cramps he sometime gets on the pitch and it lead to a third goal for Everton… 0-3!  When the referee called the end of the match, she retreated quickly to the dressing room.  «I think we just saw what happened in the last four years…» said Jon to Penny when they still were alone in the dressing room.

-          «I think so too…» she answered him.  «After the second goal, Reuben just stood there on the pitch, completely catatonic…»

To the players, she downplayed the result as being only bad luck and that after all, it was the very first time this season, on the twenty-fourth game, that they lost!  In the bus, she spent a lot of time with Jon, Andy and Tim reviewing the game and analysing the stats.  The overall conclusion was that they didn’t play bad.  They really totally controlled the midfield but two goals were the direct results of mistakes.  As for the impact of the new system itself, André Luiz on the left side instead of the right didn’t play a really bad game; just not as good as usual.  For Bienvenu, who played his first ever game as a wingback, he did just like Luiz, not the worst game he ever played but far from his best...  André Aas, who started, played ok.   The only player that played badly was, in the end, Jordan, which she subbed after the first half.  The consensus when they were arriving at Colney was this was the result of adapting to a new system coupled with lacks in concentration…  Sigh…

 

League Table after 19 games

League Schedule of the first 19 games

 

I’m leaving on holiday with the family so, there will be a hiatus on posting the story …  It’s about the only time of the year I really have with the children… 

Edited by Rien102

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Back from holiday, time to post again...

 

When Penny entered her office the following Wednesday, the day of the return leg of the North London derby, she got greeted by a series of emails that she wasn’t keen on going through  if only because she was deeply conflicted between anger or shrugging all of it.  The evening before, she received a message telling her that Takashi Kumashiro, her rotation midfielder has been selected to play for Japan in the Asian cup.  The news in itself wasn’t bad; for the time he played, he proved reliable.  What was bothering her was that his leave with the Japanese national team, was for at least fifteen days and could inflate to up to twenty-five!

«Are you serious?»  It was Jon, reacting to her comment on the midfielder’s unavailability.

-          «He will be with the national team at least until the first day of February and it could extend to mid-February…

-          We got Francisco and André to fill in for him…  Why not use them?»  Penny lifted both her hands in the air.

-          «I will use them, it’s not the point!  It’s the unavailability in the winter crunch.  It’s not an intense one since we are nowhere in Europe but it’s still the crunch…», she said while rummaging through her papers on her desk.  When she found the one she was looking for, she gave it to Jon.  «The Blancos are interested in him; they just haven’t made a bid yet…  Considering how deep we will be in the red at the end of the season, I’m starting to wonder if it shouldn’t be a window of opportunity to look into…»

Jon read the sheet of paper and he put it back on her desk.  He didn’t know how to react to the news.  She was too; she usually would not voice stuff like that to him.  In all their years together, except when making player evaluations, he never heard voice anything like that before.  When they did the last evaluations, after the meeting she got with the bosses, they decided that they would keep Takashi because he was the only natural defensive midfielder they got on the team and that he performed well when he was put on the pitch.  Even if he was more of a technical player than a physical one, like they tend to favour, he was excellent in defensive phases, with high resistance to pressure because of his awesome composure and, most of all, he was excellent at decision making…  It was the first time, for both of them, to have an Asian player and, just like for Penny, he had to admit he was stun at the news of a losing a player in the middle of the season to go play for a national team...

«Penny, how much you think we can get for him?», he asked her.

-          «Moonchi tells me we’d probably get around twenty-five to thirty million…»  Jon’s eyes popped.

-          «Ouch!  I understand the dilemma better now…

-          And two years ago, they got him on the cheap too!  I think it was around thirteen million.  Since he’s got over a hundred caps for Japan, I think we can say it was on the cheap.

-          Yeah, I’d agree on that.»  Jon took a sip of coffee before continuing.  «What are you going to do then?»  Penny turned around to look at the players who were entering the pitch for their warm-up through the giant window behind her desk.

-          «I don’t know… and I don’t know if he wants to leave or not either…»

Silence took hold in Penny’s office.  Jon was watching her looking outside while sipping his coffee.  She was biting her nails and that was something he never saw her do before.  After about a minute, she turned toward her Assistant Manager.

«I think I’ll just ask him…  After all, I don’t know what he wants and heck!  It’s Real Madrid we are talking about!»  She took her phone and called, apparently, one of her fitness coach by the words exchanged.  A few seconds later, she cut the communication.  «He’s coming.  Can you switch your Chance Creation training with my Tactical Positioning one?»  Jon smiled at her as he started to get up.

-          «Sure!» he said.  «We still do the last pre-game Tactical Preparation before lunch?

-          Yes.  The talk with Takashi shouldn’t be long.»  Jon started to walk out the door.

Penny went back to her computer to go through some of the pile of emails while waiting for Takashi to arrive.  It didn’t take long that knocks on the door were heard.  «Come in Takashi!» she said while getting up to go sit on one of the two couches.  «When are you leaving?», she asked as she was pointing to the couch she wasn’t going to sit on.

-          «The plane leaves tomorrow morning at five.» he said to his boss as he sat down.

-          «Takashi, I won’t dance around the subject...  I’m a bit stuck into a decision to make and since you are the one that will have to live with it, I decided to talk to you directly.»  He became immediately defensive.

-          «You want me to leave?

-          Want?  No, not really.  I think you saw there were big changes with the transfer window, right?

-          Yes coach.  I think money is an issue at the moment, especially if what I read in the press is exact about Damian going to City…

-          Well, they don’t have the entire story…  I think you know that Real Madrid would like to see you coming to their club, right?

-          Yes, Marco Shreiber, my agent, called me about it last week.  Did they make an offer?

-          No, but we are thinking about gauging them on their interest… but before we do this?  I want to know what you want...»  The player looked at her for a few seconds before speaking again.

-          «You really are asking me if I want to go to Real Madrid or not?»  Penny smiled while extending her arm to grab a bottle of water on the table.  She opened it as she answered.

-          «Yes Takashi, I am…» she took a sip of water.  «I don’t need an answer right away.  I just want to you to tell me if you’d want to continue here or go to Real Madrid before the end of the week.  Is that ok with you?»

Three days later, as promised, Takashi called her to give his answer.  A week later, a deal was struck with Real Madrid for twenty-nine million plus some other clauses that weren’t relevant for Penny at that moment…

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«This was a poor performance…»  Penny and one of her bosses, Kim Franssen, were eating lunch together “as suggested” by the Managing Director.

-               «Ma’am, I can’t say more than I said before.  I decided to put youngsters in the first FA Cup game against Swansea and it bit us in the butt.  I have no excuses to offer ‘cause I honestly don’t care at the point I am right now…»

Penny was tired of all of this.  The game was played four days ago and since then, all she could hear was about how bad that game was played.  She knew they meant managed but, just like the morning before the match, she thought it was the only opportunity the youngsters would have a chance to play.  She was unhappy too but what could she do?  The kids hit the framework three times and Jamarley Desnoes, her back-up keeper, had butterfingers.

«Anyhow, we can’t change anything at this point.  At least, we are still in the League Cup!» finally said Kim.

-          «I can guaranty you that I won’t let this one go…

-          We hope so too...  On another topic, I’ve been told by the Head office, to convey to you, that we are satisfied with the money you brought to the club during the Transfer Window.  The twenty-nine million for Takashi was unexpected but welcomed nonetheless».  After he said he’d be ok with going to the Real, the deal was concluded in a quick fashion.

-          «Thank you ma’am…» answered Penny.  «Now that the window is closed, I can’t do anything else…

-          We can’t ask you more than what you did Penny!  Over a hundred and forty million, plus some add-ons, in total?  It was all you could do without gutting the team mid-season.

-          I hope you will not ask me to do this again ma’am…»  Penny was eyeing her boss with deed darkened eyes.

-          «No, it shouldn’t be the case, not with the plan you gave us for the Summer Window…

-          Ma’am, afterward, will I have the right to get back some of the money of the transfers?

-          Until the moment where we are able to get out of the red ink, nothing will be done, on any front.

-          I understand… but I’d like you to consider giving me some money so I could send Cenyr, our captain, on a coaching course.  I plan to bring him in the U18 and…

-          No, we cannot Penny!» interrupted Kim.  «Nothing will be done on any front...»

Penny sighed heavily at the answer.  She knew she couldn’t fight the tide…  Anyway, she just didn’t really have the head to money at the moment; she was just thinking about tonight’s game against Fulham.

The ride toward Craven Cottage was spent in silence.  Jon saw that Penny was in a dark mood after lunch.  After the meet with Kim, she went directly to pitch number five to watch the Pre-Game Physical warm-up.  Jon saw her stay put, at the corner of the pitch, her free hand in her jacket’s pocket and leaning heavily on her crutch.  This was the typical pose she would take when she was brooding.  Once the training was over, she didn’t say a thing and started to walk toward the main building.  Jon ran to her so she wouldn’t be alone but she didn’t say a word other than asking if all were ready to leave Colney in an hour.  When Penny entered the bus, she took her usual place without a word and when Jon sat at her side, she didn’t say anything at all...

«We need to be better boys…» she said to the players before going out to the tunnel.  They needed to do better…  The game started very well.  On an interception at the edge of the Gunners’ box, Alberto Ramirez, her left back, made a long bomb over the defensive line toward Leon.  Three players started to press him but he still was able to make a pass to Moreno who was all alone.  The latter didn’t even wait for a second and completed the one-two to Leon who took the shot as he entered the box.  Score! 1-0 after fourteen minutes of play!  The rest of the half was intense; Fulham were trying their very best.  Three minutes into stoppage time, her central defenders all got a simultaneous brain cramps and Sebastian Real found himself all alone in the box facing Diego.  The score became one-all with a precise shot in the top right corner!

At half-time, she merely paced back and forth in front of the players, saying nothing.  Just before leaving the dressing room, she looked at Leon and Moreno:  «It would be nice if you guys could hit the target…»   her voice wasn’t kind.  When the second half started, she quickly saw that, from a defensive 4-2-3-1, Fulham went to a full bus parking, switching to a 4-2-3-1DM Deep…  On the sixty-third minute, on a free kick, the Cottagers scored a second time… 2-1!  Penny tried to change things around but to no avail.  On the eighty-ninth minute, Tim Moore, one of her back-up central defender who was playing his second game of the season, fouled Sebastian Real inside the box.  Luckily, Domingo was able to stop the shot!  When the referee ended the game, Penny was livid…  Of the twelve shots taken by her players, nine of which were from inside the box, only a single one was on target and it was Leon’s goal…

When the players were all in the dressing room, Penny arrived.  She stood, silently, in front of them for a long time before talking…  «One. Lousy. Shot!» she said with a low, threatening voice.  Leon, who knew the boss well, looked at his feet in a heartbeat.  «One… Lousy… Shot!» she repeated…  She quickly checked if the door of the dressing room was closed before continuing.  This time, she exploded:  «What was that out there? Huh?» she was scanning the room and saw that very few players were looking elsewhere than to their own feet.  «You guys better step it up… and fast!  ‘Cause if you never knew what pain ever was?  You’ll know it big time!»  She then looked specifically at the forwards:  «Leon?  When did you start arguing with the referees?  Huh?»  Leon lifted his head toward his boss; her eyes were like daggers… he looked back at his feet quickly!  «Next time you do that, I’ll do what I did when you arrived with the Senior squad at Villa…»  He swallowed with difficulty at the memory…  «Do you hear me?»  He lifted his head reluctantly.

-          «I… It won’t happen again boss…» he said with a weak voice.  She took three steps toward him before speaking again.

-          «See that you do… or else…»  She turned only after he looked at her one last time.

Jon, was looking with great interest at the players’ reaction.  He saw that all were making themselves as small as possible.  He knew he’d have some “mummying” to do but he knew what she just did.  She never accepted that players argue with referees, for any reason.  She didn’t press the issue that much so far but he knew that today’s performance triggered something in her…  Leon was the scapegoat, yes, but only because she worked so hard to make him accept things like she wanted them, good and bad… sometime in a very painful way…  He refrained a tiny smile that wanted to come up as he was remembering a young Leon being pushed to the limit of physical exhaustion in training while being benched for three weeks…  She kept him in the Senior squad just so that everybody would see, day in and day out, what she was doing to him!  But, all in all, she needed to pass a message…  It was all about that, and Leon would the carrier…

 

https://imgur.com/ttSyV9W

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The loss against Fulham was far behind…  Jon saw the players being in a much better spirit today.  He always wondered how she was able to pull that kind of spanking out of nowhere, especially in this day and age…  After slamming Leon at Craven Cottage, and benching him for three games, he saw the players acting in a different way.  After a better game against Brighton four days afterward, a narrow 1-0 win, things got much better.  Ipswich got spanked 3-1 at Portman Road and, at the Emirates the week after, the Gunners crushed Leicester 3-0 in what was one of the most one sided match of the season so far.  The Foxes were just below European football at that point in the season…

«Wembley is always beautiful… isn’t it?» said Jon to Penny as the bus was entering the underground parking.  She smiled.

-          «Only when we win!» she answered.

-          «Yeah…  and Everton is beatable in the best of days so…

-          Well, I hope it’s one of those…  It’s been a long time since I saw that trophy up-close!» 

As Penny and Jon entered the dressing room, she felt confident in today’s outcome.  Outside of the preparation, it was all about moral.  For some reason, probably because of her demanding behaviour, she always got a dip in performance in January.  “We are two days away from March…  It’s over now!” she thought.

«Be aggressive but be smart, boys… Come on!  Let’s go take that trophy!»  The players were clapping their hands as they were getting out the dressing room.  Leon and Domingo were the last ones to get out, as usual, and both went by Penny who was standing at the door to give her a small headbutt.  When they got theirs, they went out.  «Who would have thought it still would be a thing after all this time, huh?» said Jon to Penny.

-          «If Domingo had slapped me before our first Champions League Trophy?  I’d probably still ask him to do it!»  They both laughed.  In 2031, when she won her first Champions League with Aston Villa, Domingo came at to her before exiting the dressing room and had butted his head gently on hers’.  During the game, he stopped not one, but two penalties against Bayern!  Since then, every time he would exit a dressing room for a match, he’d do it.  Leon started doing it the next season.  On the first game, he scored a hat-trick in the Community Shield…  Since then, both players would come to her to get their headbutt.

-          «He probably would have grabbed your ass instead!»  Both laughed harder.  At thirty, Domingo still was a bachelor and, by the number of girls that came to different events during the season, still seemed to be a ladies’ man...

-          «Would probably go smoother with the press if I’d do it to him!»

Penny was in the technical area.  The 3-5-2 was well integrated by her players now and every time they were playing it, she would see the players being confident.  Today, she was playing her best XI minus two players.  Endri was out because of a twisted ankle; she had to put Ibrahim Boka as a DLP.  The other one was Guihlerme Salgado who also was in midfield.  It was a young player that has been loaned out for the last four seasons, mainly in Italy, and she decided to use him to replace Takashi, instead of the two youngsters that came to the club in January because he had experience in cup games.  He would never be a superstar but he got what she wanted:  he was a big box-to-box midfielder who wasn’t afraid to play aggressively!  The last man in midfield was Diego, as usual…

The game started rather slowly.  Abel Ferrara, the Toffees manager, came in with a pretty conservative 4-4-2 and since they were on a good form run, she asked her players to observe at start.  As suspected, Everton was pushing more on their left flank: they got one of the best right winger in the league!  After about fifteen minutes, Penny made a sign to Bienvenu, who slowly was getting accustomed in his new position, to push harder on his side.  The wingback started to make deeper runs and, on the twenty-sixth minute, he made a wonderful cross to Moreno inside the box, 1-0!

At half time, she did nothing but remind the players that there still was forty-five minutes to play…  The second half was on for only five minutes when Leon created a chance, all by himself, by drawing three players at the edge of the box!  Sadly, the ball ended on the post and Moreno was disgusted by it but, nonetheless, Penny was satisfied by the play and she let the players know!  The next goal came in the eighty-fourth minute, on a free kick.  Receiving a small pass from Ibrahim, Diego sent a missile in the top left corner of the goal from thirty yards out!  It only was five minutes into stoppage time, on a corner, that Everton finally got a shot on target… the goal came way too late to make any difference.  The Gunners had won their first League Cup since 1993!

«Diego dominated everything!» said Jon to Penny as they were retreating to the dressing room…

-          «He was on top today!  Can’t wait to see the stats… he got… what… three or four key passes, at least! And he must have a pass completion of around ninety percent!» she answered, all smile.

-          «It must be in those waters…  He just dominated the game today…»

As they were waiting in the middle of the dressing room for the players to be all seated, Leon came to Penny.  «Boss…» he started to talk in a hushed voice.  «Thanks for letting m…»  She smiled and put her hand on his mouth to make sure he wouldn’t say anything else.

-          «I always said you would always know it all from me…»  A single tear started rolling down his eye before he took her in his arms for the fourth time since the end of the match…

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On March 12th, Penny was “a bit” out of depth as she drove in her parking spot at Colney.  She felt just the way she should after drinking that much wine the night before...  When she got out of her car, she saw Jon coming to her from three emplacements down the line.  More and more, stress and her family preoccupations, were starting to get a hold on her.  The unexpected money drive she had to make in the winter window, Mark becoming dad for a second time and Britanny saying she’d get married was a bit too much for the once wife and mum and always football manager…

«Trouble sleeping I see…» said Jon as he came alongside her walking to the front door.  She hated that man right now…

-          «Yeah…» she said withholding everything else.

As they both arrived at the door, Jon opened it for her.  For weeks now, he saw the baggies under the eyes of his boss becoming more and more prominent.  Even Max noticed it last week.  As they walked toward their respective offices, not a word was exchanged. When she past her door, she just threw her backpack and purse on the couch and headed toward the cafeteria.  Jon played catch-up to join her for breakfast.  When he tried to pry the subject of the lack of sleep, she obfuscated it by starting to talk about the Manchester United game tonight.  He knew better and stopped; she was like an onion but so far, he never found a knife sharp enough to cut through and trying to peel the layers one at a time would be too much of an unpleasant moment.

The game was about to start at Old Trafford and there was electricity in the air.  The Red Devils were in second place, four points behind the Gunners.  They closed down the gap during the January dip in performance while going full steam ahead, being on a streak of victory that got all the media talking about it.  «An irresistible force will meet an unmovable object» was an analogy that was thrown around a lot when talking about the match.  Penny wasn’t looking her best but she didn’t care.  The match was a gigantic stalemate that ended on a nil-nil score.  Penny didn’t make a fuss of the result.  Her boys played good.  The thing was that the players of Wesley Sneijder played good too!

As the players were showering, Penny started her post-game routine with Jon.  Going over the stats and making notes about the games, Jon saw that she seemed absent.  He didn’t say a word about it but took a mental note; he’d need to circle back to this tomorrow with her.  «Not a lot can be said except that they played an excellent defence, just like we did…»  She acquiesced.

-          «When we’ll watch the game tomorrow, I think we’ll come pretty much to that too.  There were mistakes made but they never were fatal. On both sides.

-          I think it’s starting to gel between Diego and André Aas.  They made some good pass combinations tonight.

-          I think Diego is getting the feel of the kid’s positioning.  The latter have some work to do when he doesn’t have the ball on transition but I think it fits with what we saw in scouting…»

When all were ready to leave, Penny took Diego apart.  «I think you’re yellow card barely six minutes in slowed you down, huh?»  The man looked at here.

-          «Yeah boss.  I still don’t understand why I got it from what I did…»  She looked at him.

-          «You sure about that?»  He looked at her.

-          «Hmm… Maybe it was a bit much…

-          You know Diego that getting bogged down in the mud so early makes the game tougher.

-          I know boss.  I thought André wouldn’t be in a position to catch-up to Lewis when he intercepted the pass…»  She smiled at him.

-          «I know you play like I ask you to play but still…  Next week, I think I’ll make some extra work with you and all the midfielders.  André and Francisco aren’t used to play the way we do.»  He smiled at Penny.

-          «I think that with Endri’s injury, they are playing a bit more than what you thought, right?

-          Yes…»  She passed her free arm over his shoulders.  «… but I count on you to take them up to speed.

-          You can always count on me boss!» he said as both started to walk toward the bus.

The drive out of Old Trafford for the train station barely begun when Penny’s phone started to ring.  She was surprised at that; just like for Jon that was by her side.  She rummaged through her purse to get it out fast.  The phone always was on vibration except for the second number, the one to be used for emergency and whom only a handful of peoples knew the number.  As she got it out, she saw it was Britanny:   «Hello swee…

-          Mum?»  interrupted the daughter.  «I just got a phone call from the police.  Grand-pa is dead!»  Penny became ghost white.

-          «What?

-          He was taking a walk and he suddenly fell to the ground about an hour ago.  Apparently he got a heart attack.  They say he didn’t have any paper on him, only the keys to his house…»  Penny couldn’t say a thing…  Tears immediately started rolling down her cheeks.  Jon, who was seeing this, could hear a voice asking: «Mum? Mum?  You there?» while Penny was looking forward crying and in shock…

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A little over a month after the death of her father, Penny was in the coach with the players, riding toward Stamford Bridge.  When her father died, she didn’t show up at work for ten days.  She did was back at Colney five days later, the very day after her dad was buried alongside his wife, but she never was able to “entirely” be there…  The players all came to the funeral to pay respect.  Even the big brass at Arsenal did it.  It was surreal for Penny, to see a sea of “Gunners’ red” shirts all over the place…  Not to mention that there also was a significant amount of people from Aston Villa who came too, including the owner and a lot from staffs…  Bruce, her brother, made a comment about the fact that dad would have loved to see this…  Even Mark paid respect to her father by coming alone with Britanny…

Two week after the funeral, on April 2nd, Arsenal went to the Ron Saunders Stadium to play the second game against Villa.  Penny was tempted to not even show up at the game but she couldn’t not go…  Jon had taken over for the Sheffield Wednesday game a week after the Manchester United match but she couldn’t do the same for this one…  The meeting with Cynthia O’Flaherty was… bizarre. Villa did things with a lot of class: flowers, minute of silence before the game, etc…  It was nothing compared to the welcoming the fans offered her though…  At some point, she was ashamed since she felt it was even louder than when O’Flaherty stepped on the grass but what could she do?  The game was a 2-2 draw and Penny was ok with that result but didn’t really care…

It’s just that everything was so hard to keep in focus, everything felt meaningless…  She, who always was able to drown her problems or concerns by working at the club, whichever club she was with, never was able to do it since her father passed away…  This meant that as soon as she was alone in her flat, bottles of wine would be opened and drank…  Each morning was getting harder to manage though.  She knew that she was suffering from hangovers but the alcohol made her go through the small amount of time she was stuck alone with her thoughts…

Last night though, she didn’t have the chance to drink since Jon came to her flat.  He knew something wasn’t right.  Since the stakes were getting higher and higher, to the point that a win tonight could also mean winning the Premiere League Trophy, he felt that it was important to try and get her back on track…

When the players started getting out of the coach, Leon and Diego came to her:  «Boss, I think you need some sleep…» said the first one.

-          «I agree, you look like… well, I’ve never seen you looking like that…» said the other.  She looked at the two men.  She gave a tepid smile.

-          «Missing my dad…» she just said.  Both men gave her a hug.

-          «We got your back boss…» whispered Leon in hear.  She needed to break the hug quickly because she felt she was on the verge of crying.

Jon saw the scene and smiled inside.  He went to the trio and took her backpack.  All four started to walk toward the Visitors’ dressing room.  About thirty minutes later, in the pre-game meeting with the officials, he saw Diego Simeone, the Chelsea manager, with whom Penny had a great relationship, come to her directly with a small bouquet of white lilies…

When the first half ended, the score was nil-nil.  It was a great stalemate between two teams that preferred to play counter attacking football.  Most of all, both teams were playing very well defensively, each other limiting the opponent to only four shots.  Jon and Penny were conferring about changes to make for the second half when Ruben, the captain, got up in the dressing and started to pump the players up for the second half.  The speech was so good that both she and Jon decided not to say a single thing other than the changes.

On the fifty-eighth minutes, Ivan Ramirez, Chelseas’ right winger was moving the ball up the pitch on the right side, hugging the line.  Francisco came from behind and tackled him with both feet.  It was an immediate red card!  Penny saw the kid not even looking at the referee after the whistle.  Instead, he started to walk toward the dressing room right away; he knew…  Penny decided to make no changes on the pitch.  Francisco was the third central midfielder and she knew Endri and Diego could do the job.  She just asked Leon and Moreno to press more.  On the sixty-second minute, from a play that started with a long kick from Domingo to Bienvenu on the right flank, Leon was able to break the deadlock with a superb header from the wingback’s cross in the box! 1-0!  Automatically, Leon started to run toward Penny and Jon who were in the technical area.  With joy and energy, the player took Penny in his arm and lifted her up while giving her a bear hug:  «I told you I got you’re back boss!  I told you!!!» he screamed at her!  Six minute later, Leon and Moreno passed the ball back and forth as they were going up the pitch.  Once inside the box, with three players around him, the former made a final pass to the latter who got all the time in the world to send the ball in the back of the net! 2-0!  Two minutes into stoppage time, Mario Domizi was able to erase Arsenal’s clean sheet with a precise volley but, it was too little too late.  When the referee called the game off, it was 2-1 and the Gunners had won their first Premiere League title in nineteen years!

All the players celebrated and Leon, most of all, never let his boss be more than inches away.  When Jon finally had the chance to take her in his arm to celebrate and congratulate her, all he got was a tearful Penny…

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“Stiles:  Alcohol is the main factor in the crash.

James Bowater, Sky Sports News.

May 17, 2039

In a press conference this morning, the London Police have announced that the car accident that took the life of Arsenal’s manager, Penny Stiles, on the morning of the 16 of May, was most probably caused by alcohol.

At 07h15 two days ago, Penny Stiles crashed her car into a parked truck and lost her life.  At the time of death, the autopsy revealed that she was under the influence of alcohol, with 1.8mg of it in her blood.  There always were a lot of speculations about the reason the accident occurred.  The absence of brake marks suggested that she never slowed down.  If some suggested defects in the automatic driving system, some others suggested a human error.  Today, we now know that Stiles never engaged the automatic driving system on her car and was intoxicated at the moment of the impact.

The team didn’t make any comment as of the time of writing but a press conference has been called for late this afternoon.  The players still are under shock after the news.

Later the day of the accident, the team met Liverpool at Anfield on the last day of the season.  Jon Stead, Arsenal’s Assistant Manager, took over for the match.  The 1-2 loss was the last game of the season in the Premiere League.  Anfield, usually a very lively place, was in a very subdued atmosphere.  When the crowd started to chant the ritualized “You’ll Never Walk Alone” before the match, instead of holding Liverpool scarves, all were holding both the Reds and the Gunners scarves high in the air.  A three minutes video was then presented, summarizing Penny Stiles’ career and a minute of silence was observed.  The Arsenal players used special shirts for the game, with Stiles name in front and the number 86, which was the one she was using with the Arsenal Ladies. 

The Arsenal season is one that’s been most successful for a team that struggled in the past years.  Other than winning the League Cup Trophy, they were crowned champions with four games to spare.  Moreno Brambilla and Leon Smith finished first and second for goals scored, with 27 and 26 respectively.  The latter shattering the Premiere League record of assists, with 23 and also being named Man of the Match 11 times.

A ceremony in honour of the first woman manager in a top flight league will be held at Colney next Saturday.  Representatives from the English Football Association, the Three Lions, Aston Villa FC and Hereford FC, where she got her first job as a professional manager, will also attend the ceremony.”

Jon dropped his tablet on his desk and grabbed a tissue…  He was alone in his office and still was shocked by the events that took place in the last two days.  As he was drying his eyes, knocks on his door were heard.  «Come in!» he said while turning toward the door.  When it opened, he Saw Kim Franssen and Randy Ooms, the General Managers of the club enter his office.

-          «Sorry to disturb you Jon, but we wanted to know if we could have a word with you…» said Kim.

-          «Sure ma’am, sure…» he said while directing them toward his meeting table, in the corner, as he got up to go sit with them.

-          «I guess you know by now that she was drunk when…» started to say Randy when Jon interrupted him.

-          «Yes, sir.  I know.

-          Have you noticed any of this before?» asked Kim.  Jon took some time before speaking.

-          «I know that she took the death of her father very badly…»  He started looking at his hands that were fidgeting around on the table.  «… and I think something happened in her personal life too…  but no, I didn’t know it was to the point of being drunk at six in the morning on match day…

-          According to the autopsy report, the last drink was at least five hours before the time of death…» said Kim.  «This means that when she started to sleep, she was… well… you know…»

The silence that lasted after she spoke was deafening.  It finally was Randy who broke it.  «We will talk about the ceremony later but we, the club’s management, are thinking of offering you to take her place as Manager of the team…»  Jon looked at him.  Randy continued.   «We saw that the results this year were the doing of you both.  We also heard the comment she said, about continuity.  We think that it would be her wish for you take her place.  Kim and I will have some convincing to do at the head office since you never was a manager on your own but…»  Jon looked at the General Managers.  He didn’t speak for a very long time…

 

The end

 

It was, by far, the most successful save I ever had:5 PL championships in total, 3 FA Cups, 3 Carabao Cups, 2 Champions League + 1 runner-up, 1 Nations Leagues with the Three Lions…   I hope you enjoyed the story, stories, of this limping woman…

Thanks to all who took the time to read the stories; I hope they provided you with satisfaction. B.L.

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Wow what a way to end the story, an excellent story sir.

Lookimg forward to seeing some more work from you

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