Half-time.

Half – time.

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They ushered disconsolately into the confines of the changing room deep in the bowels of the Grandstand, the insults and abuse of their own supporters ringing in their ears.   Each player found his allocated place, and with heads bowed they waited in silence for the inevitable tirade of profanities which would shortly be coming their way.

Three nil down at half-time, in front of their own supporters would certainly not prompt any pleasantries from their volatile Manager, Ted Fulton.   ‘The Boss’, as Fulton was referred to by all personnel at the club stormed into the room, his usually pallid face now flushed with anger, strands of his customary well groomed thick black hair hanging over his forehead, caused by his fingers ruffling through them in irate frustration at the inept performance of his well remunerated charges.   Without a moment’s hesitation he launched into a verbal tirade,

“What the f*** is going on out there?”   His wrathful voice echoed deafeningly off the gleaming white tiled interior, filling the previously silent sanctuary with its vociferous threatening tone.

Ted was in his fifth year of football management having taken over the club after a three year ‘apprenticeship’ in the lower leagues.   He was a football man through and through, having turned professional as a seventeen year old, before continuing a notable playing career spanning over sixteen years and involving several clubs, before injury ended his vocation.   Whilst still a player, Ted had been savvy enough to qualify for various Coaching Qualifications, this serving to launch him into football management, after his playing days were over.   He had inherited the majority of the current squad when he took over two years ago, but was well aware that changes were necessary if he was to realize his own ambitions, and the aspirations of the current club owners.

Ted’s frustrations had been mounting as he sat in the ‘dug-out’ witnessing his team concede two sloppy goals early on in the match, then a third just prior to the half-time whistle.   Understandably, the large home crowd had turned against their team, venting their fury and exasperation at the inept performance that they were beholding from their highly paid idols. The fans’ heckling and jeering only served to compound Ted’s discomfort, as the pounding in his head combined with a sickening feeling as it settled like a block of lead deep in his stomach.

His eyes glowered round the changing room taking in his players, head bowed, swathed in sweat as they desperately tried to replace lost energy by slurping on the specially prepared energy drinks.   Only the smell of stale liniment tainted the silent air as no-one spoke, each individual internalizing the disastrous previous forty five minutes.

Centre back Dave Garrett grimaced to himself as he waited to be the first in line to be victimised.      He could hardly complain, as it was his mistakes which had cost two of the goals leading the team to be 0 -2 down after only fifteen minutes play.   Dave was usually reliable at the back of the defence, but lapses in concentration had allowed the opposition striker to get on his blind side, slotting the ball home, on two occasions.   He hoped that the Boss had missed his slip-ups, as they had occurred in a fraction of a second, but at this level of football that’s all it took for top class strikers to expose and punish you.

“I’ll have to give her up,” he thought to himself, “It’s affecting my game”.

He tried to push aside the thoughts of his affair with the seductive Helen, however, the more he tried to push the thoughts of her aside inevitably the subconscious propelled them back into his awareness.   During the past week his relationship with the vivacious young model had come to a head, as she had enough of playing second fiddle to his wife and two kids, threatening to break off the affair, or worse still, to disclose their relationship to his wife.   He was not going to sacrifice his marriage and family life for the young debutante, but the sex with Helen was so exotic and exiting that he was loath to give her up.   In fact the whole situation was starting to ‘do his head in’ and starting to affect his game.   Dave was unceremoniously dragged out of his reveries by the rasping reverberation of the Managers voice.

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“As for you,” he raged, pointing a trembling finger, directly at Dave’s forlorn figure, “Caught ball watching and allowing yer man to get wrong side of you, not once; twice!”   The Boss wasn’t finished yet,

“Too busy chasing skirt’s around town, that’s your bloody problem.”

Dave caught his breath, was his secret affair not so secret?   He knew the other players wouldn’t blame him for latching on to the lovely Helen, in fact they would be envious of him, but he didn’t want the club management knowing of his escapades, this was serious.   Ignoring the Boss’s insinuation about his sexual activities, Dave lamely tried to excuse himself.

“I couldn’t help it Boss, I slipped when the ball was played through,” was his shallow explanation, “besides that bastard’s bloody quick.”

“Once; I’ll accept, but twice in ten minutes; don’t give me that crap,” was the unsympathetic reply,   “One more mistake and you’ll be sitting next to me on the fucking bench”.

The Boss turned angrily away from Dave looking to find another victim on whom to vent his fury.

Dave felt lucky to be let off so lightly and put it down to that he had been in decent form up to date, but he swore to himself that he would get things sorted out with his sex life, otherwise he could find himself dropped from the team and possibly transfer listed.

“What does it take for our midfielders to hold on to the bloody ball and not give it away,” raged the Boss, pointing directly at the next target of his verbal onslaught.

Central midfielder, Rex Holden was genuinely surprised that he had been singled out as the next victim of the Boss’s anger.   He thought that he had been grafting hard for the team without having too much success, mainly because the two strikers were being well marked, and that wanker on his left flank, Craig Seater was hiding, as he usually did when things got tough.

“If some bastard would show for’t ball then we might be able to hang on to it,” he murmured defensively, whilst valiantly controlling the tempestuous feelings welling up inside him, resembling a volcano ready to erupt.

As if to purposely light the fuse on Rex Holden’s temper, the focus his disparagement; Craig Seater interjected, his whining cockney voice cutting through the murky atmosphere of the changing room, now becoming a verbal battlefield.

“I’m always showing for the facking ball but you never look for me,” he complained.

If Craig had a miniscule of sensitivity he would have kept his mouth securely buttoned.   His whining tone was the spark to dislodge the lid holding back the volcano which had built up inside Rex Holden’s stocky frame.

“How the fuck can I pass to you when you’re hiding behind two opponents,” he roared back at his beleaguered teammate,

“When we’re on top you always want the ball, but when things get tough you’re nowhere to be found.”

Craig withdrew his breath and held back from prolonging the argument with Rex; although he was endowed with natural speed and a good touch on the ball, he knew there was an element of truth in Rex’s comment.   He was a ‘confidence player’ and when things were going well he could turn on all the tricks and turns creating havoc amongst opposing defences, however, when the team was up against it, and the crowd was ‘baying for blood’ he tended to hide from receiving the ball.

The Boss carried on his rant and rave, this time firing his broadside to the team as a whole.         “You’re playing like a load of fucking cowards,” carefully avoiding actually calling them cowards, fully aware, that somehow he had to lift them before going out for the second half.

“You’re allowing them to shove you off the ball, we haven’t won one fifty-fifty tackle and the only player showing any ounce of courage is him,” pointing to the goalkeeper; Ray Hopkinson.

Ray was in his tenth season at the club and had seen quite a few players come and go during his tenure on the Goalkeeping spot.   He realised that the Boss was in a rebuilding phase in terms of the team, sensing that a few of the current squad would be on their way out by the end of the season.    At thirty two years old he knew he had a few years left in him as first choice keeper; he kept himself in good shape by training hard and keeping off the booze.   He also remained faithful to his regular girlfriend and had not fallen into the trap of ‘playing the field,’ like some of the others.

Ray got on well with centre back Dave Garrett and wished he had warned him that his affair with the beautiful young Helen was more public than Dave thought.   He hoped that Dave would have the common sense to break it off with her before too much damage was done to both his family and his career.   Professional football is perceived to be a glamorous occupation by many people on the fringe of the game, earning big money, and gaining celebrity status because of the massive media exposure can lure young men into living the high life.   However, what can be forgotten is that a footballers world can come crashing down around him because of injury or loss of form, not to mention that a footballers career has a relatively short life span.   Ray had long since concluded that if you want to remain in the game at the top level then you had to look after yourself.   He made up mind to have a quiet word with Dave after the game and try to talk some sense into him…

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The Boss’ comments about him showing courage had been appreciated because it was true; he had been throwing himself all over the goal area trying to keep the score down.   He reflected, however, that when keepers were in the thick of the action they could show the best of their athleticism and agility.   It was in games when their team was on top and dominating possession that keepers generally feared the most.   With minimal involvement in the action they were susceptible to losing concentration thus making them vulnerable to spasmodic counter attacks.   Ray recalled several occasions in his career when he was made to look foolish in this way, but it would not happen in this game; he was already heavily overextended and the match was only half over.

He wiped his face with a clean white towel, tasting the salt from his own sweat on the tip of his tongue, as he glanced across the room at his teammates….

Alain Diawara sat back on his seat, his searching dark eyes and sombre expression giving no clues as to what was going on in his mind.   He wiped away the beads of perspiration trickling down his face from the mass of black braids adorning his head.   His African heritage was unmistakable; an uninformed visitor might wonder what someone so far from his origins was doing in the confines of an English football changing room, but his presence was an indication of the ever increasing global spread of players seeking their fortune in the ‘beautiful game’.

Alain’s solemn expression concealed the turmoil of thoughts circulating in his brain as he desperately tried to contemplate the dressing room drama which was being played out in front of him.

A native of the African State; Cote D’ Ivoire, he had learned his football at the ‘school of hard knocks’ in the back streets of Abidjan before his talent had been spotted by a scout from a top French Club; Olympique de Marseille.   On his fifteenth birthday he left his African homeland to search for fame and fortune by joining the club’s Youth Football Academy in France.

For a number of years he had applied himself diligently in his adopted country thus prompting other clubs from around Europe to take an interest in him.   As with millions of players around the world, the draw of playing top class football in England was too much to miss, and when his agent fixed him up with a deal he was eager to sign.

However, nothing could have prepared him for the transition from the hot climate of the Ivory Coast or the temperate climate of southern France, to the cold unforgiving winter of northern England.   To compound his problems, his young French wife, Angelique, was finding it difficult to settle away from friends and family, and despite the efforts of the club counsellors to ease her into the community, she still suffered from long bouts of homesickness.   This was constantly preying on Alain’s mind and he knew that this was one of a number of reasons why he wasn’t performing to his own, or the clubs expectations.

Alain’s command of English wasn’t proficient enough for him to join in the mayhem taking place in front of him, but he knew he had to stand up and be counted when they returned for the second half.   As a striker, he expected to be tightly marked and buffeted around by the opposing centre-backs; putting up with the occasional the racial comment, in the hope of distracting him, was also a ploy used by unscrupulous opponents.   However, these were ‘on the park’ goings-on which he had handled well enough in the past, but when worries ‘off the park’ kept intruding into his psyche it made things more difficult as it affected not only his concentration, worse still, his confidence and self-belief.

The heated voice’s pounding through his eardrums, combined with the vigorous body language of the protagonists, left Alain in no doubt of a ‘no holds barred’ altercation taking place in front of him, of which some of the rhetoric would affect him directly.   His frustration lay in his lack of the English language skills required to express him-self; this severely restricted him from adding his opinion to the volatile debate.

Alain resolved that his actions on the field of play were the way to divert the criticism, which was bound to come his way, if the team succumbed.   At the risk of a ‘yellow card’ he vowed to use his elbows to return some of the stick he had been receiving from his marker.   If that didn’t work, he was not averse trying the occasional late challenge, out of the view of the officials, if that was possible.   Hopefully, he could unsettle his markers enough to allow him the split second that he needed to capitalise on one of the few chances which would come his way…..

The cultural diversity in football was never so pronounced as was evidenced by Alain’s teammate sitting alongside him.   Gunnar Nordquist was the archetypical Swede; pale completion, ice blue eyes and a topping of flaxen hair.   He was a crowd favourite, possessing the traits characterised by the majority of Nordic footballers; an intelligent hard working approach to the game combined with a never give in attitude.

A Swedish International, Gunnar had no problems when it came to expressing himself in English.   As with most Scandinavians he had acquired the language at an early age thus making it relatively easy for him to fit into the British culture.

Gunnar had gravitated from one of the prestigious football academies in his native city of Gothenburg, making his name with his home town club, before transferring to English football, some three years ago.   He had made an instant impact at the club by scoring a brace of goals on his debut thus assuring him a popularity with the fans which had continued up to the present time.

For an instant an uncanny sensation had crossed Gunnar’s mind at the mention of Dave Garret’s alleged indiscretion with other women.   Recently his partner, Ingrid had been finding reasons to be away from their luxury apartment more often than in the past, also other subtle cover-ups of her absence had sown a seed of doubt in his mind about her activities.   He knew full well that a tall elegant blue eyed blonde Swedish woman turned many a head, particularly in a grim northern English city, but having an affair with one of his teammates?

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He despatched the thought from his mind as quickly as it had surfaced; after all there was a male code of conduct surrounding women which condemned players who broke that code, ostracising them from the group was the usual penalty.

Gunnar’s keen football mind was anxious to give his take on proceedings, waiting for a short lull in the heated quarrelling to elapse before intervening.

“We are taking too much time on the ball before releasing it,” his impeccably precise pronunciation of the English language, contrasted strongly with the abrasive accents of the British protagonists caught up in the wrangling.

“Our strikers are making their runs but the ball isn’t being delivered from the midfield early enough.”

The two middle-midfielders; Rex Holden and Brian Samuels caught each other’s eyes, reflecting their synchronized thinking, same old story, when things are going wrong, ‘blame the midfield’.

Brian responded immediately, glaring ferociously at the Swede, his nostrils flaring in anger.

”The Boss say’s that we should be holding onto the ball, you’re telling us we should be giving it early, no wonder we’re fucking struggling.”

Brian’s direct answer silenced the Swede, who looked towards the Boss in the hope of some rescuing words.   None came, how could they?  Brian had highlighted the conflicting philosophies which had helped to create this toxic half time situation.

Gunnar sat back perplexed, but he hung on to his thoughts as things were heated enough and he didn’t want to pour more oil on the fire.

“These guys are experienced professional footballers, surely they know when to hang onto the ball and when to release it quickly,” he grimaced, out of earshot of the others….

The third foreigner in the line-up was the Argentinian Osvaldo Bovio, a natural left footed player with blistering pace and dazzling technical skills.   Osvaldo was in his second season with the club having arrived via an unsuccessful stint in Italy, where he had made limited appearances in Serie A.

Osvaldo’s abilities were there for everyone to see and admire, however, it was his fiery temperament which often got the better of him, resulting in a series of bookings and sending off ’s over the years, putting into question his value to any team.   The Boss had taken a chance when he signed him, knowing full well that he needed to be handled with caution; as with the majority of managers, Ted was confident that he could bring the best out of any player; Osvaldo being no exception.

With the Falkland’s crises in the hazy past, and new generations of football fans filling England’s stadiums, Osvaldo’s Argentinian roots were buried and forgotten by the vast majority of the club’s fan base; he starred for their club, that’s what really mattered to them.   Osvaldo was also very popular with his teammates, not only because of his football skills, but his unbridled energy and his clowning around, which often had them roaring with laughter.   It was difficult to equate his ‘on the pitch’ antagonism with his ‘off the pitch’ good natured approach to life, almost as if two personalities inhabited his handsome swarthy scull.    The playful child was prominent most of the time, but the shadow side of his personality was poised; waiting to emerge when provoked.

Nurtured in the slums of Buenos Aires; Osvaldo could thank the thousands of hours he had spent playing football in the streets, alleyways or any spare bits of ground which could be found in that overcrowded city, for his current prosperity.   However, surviving in that environment had left scars in his personality which could be directly attributed life in the slums.   As a youth, he had been involved in several criminal activities, culminating in the murder of a drug dealer, which brought him under the scrutiny of the police, but he had been too cunning to be caught out.

Osvaldo’s talent on the football field rescued him from what could have been a life of crime, as his exceptional abilities were spotted by a local professional club who gave him the chance to carve out a career in football.

Now in his mid-twenties, married with three children and living the life of an affluent top class player he could regard his dubious past as a distant memory.   Unfortunately, on occasions, the dark memories of his youth came back to haunt him, usually in pressure situations, causing him to revert back to the animal instincts fostered during the many years he spent on the streets.

Osvaldo loved the life in England, despite the caustic climate of the North.   He enjoyed the enthusiasm of the crowds, who were very passionate, but rarely caused too much aggravation, as compared with the crowds back in Argentine; often having to witness matches from behind high fences.

Osvaldo had found it difficult to get into the game mainly because Craig Seater hadn’t been showing for the ball, as had been explicitly pointed out by Rex Holden.   He needed Craig to get the ball and cut inside, opening up the space to allow him to overlap and attack down the left flank; unfortunately he had spent most of the half helping to stem the waves of attack coming from the opposition.

The uncomfortable, almost uncontrollable devilish shadowy side of his personality was starting to surge up within him and holding it back was almost like trying to halt the incoming tide.   He was desperate to get back on the field of play and allow the energies of physical combat to channel his menacing emotions out of his mind….

Eighteen year old Simon Davies listened half-heartedly to the bombast surrounding him.

“Who gives a shit about all this tactical and technical bullshit round who should be doing this or that.   Just give me the fucking ball and I’ll show em’ what I can do,” he quietly muttered to himself.

An England Schoolboy and current Youth International, Simon had had a meteoric rise to the top finding himself a regular in the first team at such a tender age.   Blessed with natural speed and an almost innate touch on the ball, he had nevertheless dedicated himself to football for as long as he could remember.   His father, Jock, would spend hours training him on the local recreation park, he would play in the school ground with his mates, and if that wasn’t enough still practice for hours on his own, kicking a ball against the backyard wall at the tiny terraced house where he lived.

As is often the case with gifted players, tactics and systems of play evoke only a passing interest, Simon being no exception.   He wanted to show off his indubitable talent by having the licence and the freedom to roam where he could do most damage to his opponents, whilst at the same time enhancing his appeal to his worshipping teenage fans.

Unfortunately for Simon, the team captain, Roy Branston, had picked up on his mutterings, despite the commotion of noise going on around them.

“Oh, so wonder boy is going to pull us all out of the shit, then,” Roy’s sarcasm was out of character with his normal positive approach.

Simon’s face reddened and he felt nauseating sensation in his abdomen.   He had tons of respect for the skipper who had nursed him through his early days in the team; Roy had looked out for him when the opposing hatchet men tried to cut him down to size, he had also given him plenty of advice on how to survive in the red hot atmosphere of match-day.

“Sorry Roy I was just thinking out loud,” was his humble reply.

“What did he say?” demanded the Boss, now feeling to be losing control of the situation.

“It’s sorted,” growled Roy the tone of his voice reflecting how he felt.

 

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Roy had been at the club for more than six years now having been spotted playing in the lower divisions of English football.   He featured at the back of the defence alongside the beleaguered Dave Garrett, the culprit blamed for causing the first two goals.   Roy and Dave had been the backbone of the team for the past few seasons developing a telepathic understanding between each other which helped them out of many dangerous situations in the game.   He couldn’t understand how Dave had allowed his man to get blindside for the first two goals and had desperately tried to cover for him but had been a split second too late.   He had noticed a change in Dave’s concentration during the past few games and now that the ‘cat was out the bag’ regarding his nocturnal activities he began to put two and two together.   Roy wasn’t judgemental about his teammate being caught out ‘shagging’ away from home, but for Christ sake, if he was going to let it affect his game and endanger the rest of the teams win bonuses, then as skipper, he had some sorting out to do…..

By now, the Boss; Ted Fulton, had finished the haranguing of his players leaving an uneasy silence to settle over the room.

Assistant Coach, Graham White had kept silent during the preceding turmoil but realised that the clock was ticking; within minutes the buzzer would summon the players back onto the field for the second half to commence.   An ex-player himself he was no stranger to the bickering that when on in most changing rooms when things were going wrong.   Despite the negativity, he could regard things in a positive sense in that the players were committed to the cause and were desperate to put things right.

Graham and Ted had been friends for many years, having played together in the lower regions of the Football League.   On his initial appointment into football management Ted had immediately appointed Graham as his number two and following his elevation into the top flight of English Football he took him along as his assistant.   Ted trusted Graham implicitly, combining an element of ‘Good Cop’ ‘Bad Cop’ about the way they worked together to get the best out of their players.

“That’s enough arguing,” Graham’s penetrating voice cutting through the murky atmosphere with an authoritarian tone which immediately captured the attention of all the individuals gathered in the confines of the changing room, “let’s get things sorted out.”

His voice lowered in its tone until it reduced to a hypnotic whisper, hardly audible in what had been a boiling cauldron, but achieving its purpose of getting everyone to calm down thus allowing his words to infiltrate their minds.

“We gave them far too much space in the first half so we have to get in their faces all over the park,” he began, “the back-four need to hold a fairly high line, giving the midfield a chance to pressurize.”

A deathly silence had descended on what had been a raucous setting as the players hung on to Graham’s words, this was the lifeline that they needed, constructive guidance on how to get out of the black hole that they had dug for themselves.

He continued his discourse with all attention focussed on his every word, no questions were asked.

“Encourage them to play out from the back, but Alain and Gunnar, make the pitch narrow by showing them inside and channel them up through the middle,”

He instructed Rex and Brian, the most central midfielders, to close down quickly not allowing their opponents to turn, when they won the ball to get it forward early, if there was nothing on, then screen the ball and hold onto possession…..

Graham continued his talk in a positive vein, however, at no stage did he mention the mountainous task of pulling the game back, instead he gave each player process goals which were realistically achievable.

“Keep a clean sheet in defence and look to score one goal, and let’s see where that takes us,” he finished off brightly.

As a group the players responded with laud clapping and shouts of bravado, “Come on we can do it,”  “Let’s get into them,” resounding around the room.

All the aggravation of the preceding turbulent ten minutes was forgotten;

For the next forty five minutes Dave pledged to put aside any thoughts about the gorgeous Helen…

Alain determined himself to ignore his worries about Angelique’s homesickness and to ‘sort out’ their centre backs…

Brian and Rex vowed to overlook the criticism which came their way and to take control of the middle midfield…

Gunnar swore to put behind him any thoughts of his wife’s infidelity and get into the visitors penalty area on more occasions…

Roy vouched to impose his leadership and make sure everyone pulled their weight…

Craig steeled himself find the courage to demand the ball more often and make his mark on the game…

Young Simon just wanted to get back out and play football…

Osvaldo pledged to keep his shadowy demon’s under control…

Ray simply hoped that his goalkeeping skills would be far less called upon…

The Boss’s ‘rollicking’ of his players had helped to relieve the tension within him, feeling a quiet optimism stirring in his gut.   He was grateful that his Assistant Coach, Graham, had pulled things together prior to the players returning for the second half.    He felt the usual buzz of adrenalin surging within him as his players scurried past him to enter the arena, the clattering of their footwear echoed noisily off the walls of the tunnel as they ran out to face the unfolding drama of the second half.

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The crowd’s disappointment from the inept first half performance had partly dissipated, along with their half-time cups of drink; a crescendo of optimistic encouragement erupted as the team reappeared out of the tunnel ready to continue the contest…….

 

Based on true incidents; characters names are fictional.

MT.