Soccer Blues by Tim Frank
Soccer Blues by Tim Frank
One drizzly afternoon, the Rifles, a mid-table Premier league soccer team based in London, were losing by three goals to nil after a limp first-half display against a usually inept team from the Yorkshire Downs. The Rifles’ manager, a sixty-six-year-old Norwegian named Tore Flo, known for smoking cigarettes and drinking brandy from a flask while pacing the technical area like a caged tiger, was unable to muster a single word to galvanise his team in the break, so furious was he by their incompetence. And then he collapsed.
One minute, Flo was striding back and forth in front of his players in the changing room, angrily sucking on his cigarette, and the next he had keeled over and hit the floor – his head cushioned by a stray football boot.
Of all sixteen players filling the room Jermaine was the only one to race to the boss’ side, loosen his tie, and helplessly enact CPR.
Jermaine had risen through the youth ranks, making his name as a prolific goal poacher and Flo had taken him under his wing, bringing him into the first team. They shared a genuine affection whereas most of the other players described the gaffer as a “hairy old bastard.”
Once the medics arrived, wheeled away the boss and it was clear there was no hope, Jermaine turned to his teammates and cried, “What’s the matter with you!? Don’t you care?!”
Silence reigned. But out of the still, Graham Hunter the no-nonsense, English-bred assistant coach clapped his hands, roared some inane tactical instructions then sent the boys out onto the pitch with their ears ringing.
Much to Jermaine’s surprise his team recovered to achieve a creditable draw – their lazy but gifted Spanish winger scoring two spectacular goals. Walking off the pitch and down the tunnel Jermaine muttered in the Spaniard’s ear, “Shame it took someone to die before you could find some form.”
The Spaniard grabbed him by the neck, forced Jermaine back and yelled, “I play for myself! Ok? Me!”
Arriving home, his wife, and childhood sweetheart, Jean, was in the kitchen simmering tortellini while watching the Nasdaq on the business channel, taking notes as usual.
“Did you see the news?” he said, as he dropped the keys for the Bentley in the bowl by the door.
“It’s just a spike in the market,” she said, almost hypnotised by the digits rolling by, “I’m sure it’ll even out by tomorrow.”
“No,” said Jermaine, “about the gaffer.”
“Oh, yes. That,” she said flicking the flat screen off and turning to Jermaine. She wrapped him up in her arms and then gave him a tender kiss. “I know how much he meant to you,” she said. “Sit down, let’s eat, and we can talk about it.”
“I’m not hungry,” said Jermaine, “I think I’ll just have a dip in the pool and try and ease down.”
“Sure, I’ll microwave your dinner when you’re ready. Jermaine, it’s going to be OK, we can work through this, we can work through anything as long as we’re together.”
“I know,” he said, “I know we can.”
The pool was located in the west wing of the mansion, far from the office where Jean had gone to continue her studies. Jermaine pulled off his shoes and socks, dangled his bare feet in the water and took advantage of the privacy to call his mistress.
“Hi, Nicole, it’s me,” he said, trying to speak softly as the high glass ceiling and the gentle lapping of the water amplified his words.
“Hi honey,” she said. “You sound down, what’s wrong?”
“Haven’t you seen the news?”
“I know Netflix released some new episodes of Rupaul’s Drag Race. That it?”
“No, Nicole,” he said, with a sigh.
“Well, why don’t you just tell me, Mr Grumps?”
“The boss died.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s dead, had a heart attack. Gone.”
“Hmm. I suppose this is the wrong time to tell you to leave your wife then.”
“Yes,” said Jermaine, through gritted teeth, “it is.”
“Tough. Listen to me, now is the perfect time to make changes. Up until now I haven’t been interested in football, just footballers. But when I met you things became different. You’re good and kind and I want to have kids with you, a football team’s worth of children and I’ll love every one of them like no other mum could.”
“I have responsibilities and ties. You make it seem so easy.”
“If you focus on what you really want, you can achieve it. That’s the truth. Then the question is, what is it you really want?”
Just then there was the sound of slippers shuffling along the parquet floor towards the swimming pool and Jermaine panicked, almost dropping his phone in the water, plucking it out of the air just in time. He hung up on Nicole as she called out to him in confusion. Jean drew a recliner up close to Jermaine and lay back, watching the stars rotate through the glass ceiling.
“Who were you talking to?”
“What? Oh, that was – that was my agent.”
“Ah right. Feel like discussing things yet?” she said.
Jermaine puffed his cheeks and rested his forehead in the palm of his hand.
“What can I say? He was like a father to me,” Jermaine said, his top lip starting to quiver. “He was better, in fact, because my dad was a shit. My dad gave me nothing except the genes to play, the gaffer gave me the beating heart.”
“My body won’t allow me to give you a family and that will haunt me until I die, but I can love you and give you security, more than anyone in this world. You know that’s why I’m always studying investments, don’t you? I’m doing it for us, our future.”
After a long silence, Nicole’s words begun to twist his thoughts.
“I’m thinking of leaving.”
Jean jerked forward, “What?”
“Leaving the team.”
“Without the gaffer there’s nothing to keep me with the Rifles.”
“But you’ve spent your whole life at the club. Don’t you think you owe your team some loyalty?”
Jermaine pulled his feet out of the water, dried them with a towel and slipped on some flip-flops. He was about to make his way upstairs to go to bed but before he left, he couldn’t resist saying, “Maybe you’re right. But you can’t predict every last fucking thing, Jean. Sometimes you have to just take a leap into the unknown.”
Early next morning while Jermaine was cracking open boiled eggs on the marble kitchen counter top, he got a call from his agent Albert, who said coach Hunter wanted to have a meeting at the training ground to discuss Jermaine’s “future”. Albert ordered Jermaine to let him do all the talking and promised Jermaine the future looked extremely bright.
Jermaine kissed Jean goodbye on her forehead, and whispered an apology for his behaviour last night. Jean was watching the stocks on the couch and she didn’t seem to notice him. He felt a pressure like a balled-up fist in his stomach. He knew today’s meeting would change everything for them.
Arriving at the training ground, Jermaine was distressed to discover it was just another normal day – players stretching and sprinting, practising set piece routines and quickfire passing and then finishing up the morning session by playing five a side. Everything was the same.
Jermaine met Albert by the entrance to the training centre, the agent wearing a brazen smile.
“This is it; this is it,” Albert said, brimming with excitement, rubbing his hands together.
Sitting outside Flo’s office Jermaine and Albert tapped their fingers impatiently. Hunter finally entered, scoffing a sausage and egg McMuffin and garbled something incoherently as he jiggled the keys to unlock Flo’s office. Once inside Hunter offered Albert and Jermaine seats and the coach sat side-saddle on the desk.
“I’ll get straight down to it Jermaine. The Wild Dogs are trying to exploit the fact the gaffer has passed on. They’re offering a bid for your services. Now, everyone knows how close you were to him but I think you’ll find with all I’ve learnt while coaching this team we can go right to the top, with you as its talisman.”
Just then two men in dirty overalls bustled into the room and started removing Flo’s books, lamps and paintings, stacking pictures of his wife, children and grandchildren, haphazardly into boxes.
“What are they offering?” Jermaine said.
“Well let me reassure you we’ll match their offer, plus bonuses. Trust me they can’t compete with our package.”
Jermaine watched the removal men collect a snow globe from the windowsill. It represented the glacial Norwegian landscape of Flo’s hometown, Trondheim.
“Well, I’ll peruse the contract over the next couple of days but I don’t foresee any problems,” said Albert.
Just then one of the removal men dropped the snow globe – shards of glass, polystyrene and water were dashed across the floor. Jermaine said, “Wait. I think – I think I want to talk to the Wild Dogs.”
Albert interrupted, “No Jermaine, I strongly advise against that. Financially it doesn’t make sense. Plus, all your friends are here; this is your life. And what about your fans? No, you need time to think. It’s OK coach, he just needs time to think.”
“No, I don’t, Albert. The truth is I stand a better chance of winning things with the Dogs – they always beat us and finish higher in the league. I could make the difference and lead them to the title.”
“Please take some more time to consider the offer Jermaine,” said Hunter. “I promise I can take this club further than the gaffer ever could.”
Jermaine returned to his car, sat listening to hip hop and watched as the removal men filled their van with the last of Flo’s possessions. Jermaine’s music was particularly dense with violent lyrics and he blasted it to the loudest volume. He resisted the urge to repeatedly punch the steering wheel. He decided to drive home and tell Jean he was seeking a transfer from his boyhood club and that he wanted to leave her for another woman.
That night after Jermaine had broken the news to Jean, he rushed around their mansion collecting bare essentials while she trailed him desperately, begging for a reason.
“It’s time to move on,” said Jermaine, gathering together all his chargers and packing all his gadgets.
“But I don’t understand, what about our love and our life?”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“There’s someone else.”
“You’ve got another girl? I can’t believe you’ve found someone you love more than me.”
“It’s not that simple, everything has its time. I have to take my chance while I can. You wouldn’t understand.”
“I want to know why you think I can’t give you all you need. It’s because I can’t have kids, right? Right?”
“That’s not it. Look, everyone else is going all out for themselves, why should I be any different? I want a new life.”
“Greed. This is about greed?”
“It’s about getting what I deserve, I think that’s fair.”
Jermaine laid a suitcase on the bed, filled it with clothes and zipped it up. Jean was quietly sobbing behind him. Jermaine turned to her and said, “I can’t live in the past. You’re the past Jean. I’m sorry.”
She wiped the mascara from her eyes, her face looking like an ink blot, and said, “Don’t come back, I never want to see you again.”
That night, Nicole was splayed across the white leather couch in the penthouse suite Jermaine had rented for them both and shovelled luxury chocolates into her mouth – a film of brown gunge gathering at the corners of her mouth. Jermaine looked on in disgust and when he heard Nicole vomiting everything up in the bathroom later that night, he suspected bulimia, and he felt a chill shoot down his spine. He wondered if he’d made a terrible mistake.
Two months later the Wild Dogs were set to play the Rifles in a crucial showdown that could significantly affect who would win the league. Jermaine had started well with his career playing for the Dogs, scoring four in four games. But then his form dipped. He faltered in front of goal and he lost his place in the first team. His relationship with the fiery manager – a misshapen fellow with a face like a peanut and hands bulging with veins – was fractious at best. So, when the first eleven for the Dogs versus the Rifles was revealed, it wasn’t a surprise to Jermaine he was consigned to the substitutes bench.
Jermaine’s new manager, named Hugh McKellen, was different to Tore Flo in that McKellen didn’t use sports science but relied on his motivational skills instead. He’d been successful at every top club he’d managed and looked set to lead the Wild Dogs to victory once again.
The match kicked off and the Rifles took the lead early on through their mercurial Spanish player. Seventy minutes in and the Rifles were still ahead and they looked comfortable. Alarmed, McKellen decided to roll the dice and send Jermaine onto the pitch. Before the substitution, McKellen drew Jermaine aside and said, “Laddy, you haven’t done much for us lately and you’ve never been my first choice – the chairman bought you, not me. But you’re here, against your old club and you could really do something special today. Do it for me, do it for you, do it for your club. Go get ’em laddy”
As Jermaine ran onto the pitch the Rifles’ supporters jeered and taunted him. At first, Jermaine looked lost and he couldn’t get near the ball. But when his team won a corner, instinct kicked in and he knew exactly where to go. He scored from the six-yard line with his first touch. Then as Jermaine and his teammates celebrated in front of the opposing fans, goading them into a reaction, one of the Rifles supporters hurled a pig’s head onto on the pitch. The stewards swarmed and tried to subdue the crowd – the scene threatening to break into chaos. But after a few minutes, the fans were successfully contained and the match was allowed to continue.
The Wild Dogs still needed another goal but with the Rifles’ defensive formation, it looked unlikely that the Dogs could break them down. However, five minutes from time Jermaine unleashed an outrageous curler from outside the box, putting the Dogs into a winning position. It was then, only a few minutes later, the decisive moment in Jermaine’s playing career and his life, took place.
The incident began innocently enough; Jermaine had run the ball towards the corner flag in an attempt to waste time. The Spaniard chased him back, which was unusual to say the least. The two opposing players got into a tussle – the Spaniard tugging on Jermaine’s shirt and Jermaine flailing his arms. Accidentally Jermaine caught the Spaniard right in his face with his elbow. In a petulant rage the Spaniard hacked at Jermaine with his foot, bringing his studs down viciously onto his knee. There was a loud crack and Jermaine collapsed to the ground in agony as the crowd sneered in derision. The final whistle blew. The Wild Dogs had sealed victory, but Jermaine was stretchered off, unsure of his season, unsure of his future. In fact, he would never play again.
The season had ended. Jermaine flicked through a tabloid paper outside a cafe as crowds of Rifles supporters congregated along the nearby city streets. He stubbed his cigarette out and flapped the paper open to a page of paparazzi pictures. Nicole and Jean were photographed stepping out of separate limousines, accompanied by their new boyfriends – both of them footballers – entering into night clubs. The headline said, ‘Out with the old, in with the new. Soccer lovelies find new winning formula.’
Jermaine sunk his teeth into another chocolate twist pastry and felt his belt strain against his ever-expanding waistline. As the crowd grew, no one seemed to recognise him, so much had his appearance changed. Now his cheeks were plump, and he had a thick layer of tangled stubble. His hair was unkempt, and the only evidence he had been a top-class sportsman was the brace wrapped around his knee. He was alone now. Nicole broke their relationship off when it was clear Jermaine had no future in the game and when he desperately tried to patch things up with Jean, she hurled eggs at him from the front step of their old home. Even the Rifles supporters, who were once so full of hatred for the striker that had betrayed them, now couldn’t care less about the has-been.
The streets were full and the Rifles squad began their open top bus parade, celebrating the fact they’d clinched the Premier league title. Hunter had done it and proved himself as a great manager. As Jermaine watched his former teammates, giddy with joy, it truly hit home that he had been forgotten. Coming to this procession was the wakeup call he needed – he had to try and move on.
He thought of his old boss, Flo, and his lifeless body. He thought of his ex-wife, who he still saw in his dreams with her tearful eyes. He’d thrown it all away, but who could’ve blamed him? Everything had been ripped from under his feet and yet despite giving his situation endless thought, he couldn’t imagine doing things differently. His was the lot of the professional sportsman – reaching for the stars and through no fault of his own, falling tragically short, suffering the random nature of fate.
Copyright Tim Frank 2020