Rob was hunched over the bar in between Jackie and Stubbs as they pored over their notes from the latest trial session. The only certainty at this point was that the squad would be more cobbled together than a Newcastle back-line in a League Cup game, and probably twice as vulnerable. Despite the grim prognosis, Rob was enjoying his first real foray into football management, and had already made some tactical suggestions which brought nods of approval from the wise old owls perched either side of him.
After much discussion, the reliable 4-4-2 had been abandoned in favour of a more cultured 4-5-1, which would also serve to provide additional protection to a team susceptible to getting the occasional run-around. The double meaning of their nickname – The Journeymen – was not lost on management. The general plan for now was to leave all the runners towards the top and hope numbers at the back would prevent being too exposed.
A bastardisation of the Granny Rule allowed them the luxury of a 16 year old Academy trialist who was keen to toughen up in more industrial settings. Jack Charlton would have been proud of such a find in his Ireland days, and maybe even acquiescent to the illegitimacy of the selection. The kid was already being privately referred to as Cascarino in honour of the great Irishman that never was.
- He’ll play up top I take it Rob?
Stubbs suppressed a burp – bloody brown ale – and turned his watery eyes towards Rob. It was a good question, one that he had been thinking about himself as he tossed and turned over tactics the last few nights. No other than Zlatan Ibrahimovic himself offered the solution. He had signed him years ago sitting on his computer - as his mother counted down allotted time after homework – and decided that his technical ability would be far more useful than his physical prowess to a high-flying Rushden & Diamonds. He could envision the gifted youngster pulling the strings high up the pitch.
- We have to put him at no. 10 I think. No, no, hear me out! You wouldn’t put Dele Alli up front, you need him playing with some space, getting more involved in the game, supplying, creating, scoring. He’d be wasted playing any further forward, he wouldn’t see the ball!
Jackie and Stubbs digested the information, as the silence was filled by the noises from the rest of the bar – the chatter and movement of glasses, Van Morrison on the playlist, shouting for drinks. Rob could hear the scraping of seats against the tiled floor from the back. He suddenly had the urge to relieve himself, conscious also that he might have overstepped the mark with the insistence that had carried in his tone. He pushed himself away from the bar as he muttered about needing a piss, his head held low so they wouldn’t see the colour that had risen in his cheeks.
- Rob! Rob! Over here!
He couldn’t believe it - must have been three or four years since he had seen her – but there she was. The last he knew she had been travelling the world, seeing her face splashed across Facebook behind Amazonian waterfalls and Inca temples, or revelling at full moon parties under the arm of a succession of bronzed Adonis-like men with chiselled jaws and sleeveless tops.
Speechless. Unfathomably she was now leaving her coterie of friends in a booth at the back while he struggled to find a pleasantry that belied the succession of beats his heart missed on account of launching itself into his mouth. He managed to squeeze some words out in the midst of an unexpected embrace.
- Hi Steph, how’s it going? How long have you been back around?
Her eyes were lit up like dragonflies even in the dim interior of The Crown Posada. He could feel Jackie and Stubbs watching from behind him.
- Only since yesterday! Sorry, I promised I’d spend the night with the girls so I’d better get back to them, but it’s so good to see you – guess I’ll see you around?
She was already turning by the time he registered the conversation was over. The girl he spent three years of school fantasising about had returned, and even as a grown man he could barely speak to her. Grown man my arse. He returned to the bar and knocked back some of the fresh pint, the sparkle in her eyes – real or imagined – still burning his retinas.
- Old flame Robbie boy?
The good humour had returned to the trio at the sight of the youngest member of the pack floundering. He stole a glance down the bar but could only make out the familiar burst of auburn hair that had distracted him through double history lessons, the vacant stare that had been his trademark from the back of the class.
- Maybe best not to talk about it, eh Stubbs? We’ve had a think about where to put the young lad, at 10 is as good a place as any we reckon. We’re out for a smoke, do us a favour and ask her out so you can get back to your tactical masterminding.
- It’s a young man’s game Jackie! Best of luck son.
He felt a pat on his back and suddenly he was alone. He took a deep breath, he knew now what he needed to do.