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Bringing Football to a Rugby Town - Harper Tanner's Tale

Taking the reins at Bath City FC Harper Tanner tries to steer the club from Non-League annonymity to the promised land
Started on 24 October 2017 by Po Red5
Latest Reply on 24 May 2018 by Po Red5
Part 1

Coming through the arrivals gate Harper was struck by how busy the small airport was. Bristol Airport wasn’t the showiest but it certainly had some footfall. He glanced around to orient himself and to catch his breath. It had all happened so quickly; first the phone call with the executive assistant Maggie, then one with his agent Gary and then Maggie again. He spoke only briefly to his wife to gauge her thoughts and then it was all in motion. Before he knew it a flight was booked and he was on his way to the airport.

He checked the digital clock on the wall and then looked for a sign to tell him where to look for the hire car collection. Once he was sure which way to go he logged the direction in his mind and then made his way into the W H Smiths to pick up a drink and perhaps something to eat. From the chiller he grabbed a bottle of juice – blood orange and grapefruit – along with a bottle of water, next he picked up a peri peri chicken salad wrap and joined the queue.

As he waited in the queue of holiday makers buying drinks and lottery tickets he let his eyes drift across the newspapers. The various national papers were full of talk of Brexit and the potential disruption it might bring, along with little bits of gossip and fluff – soft news for a bland Monday morning. One newspaper however, The Non-League Paper down on the bottom shelf, caught his attention; or at least the headline did – Robbery at Twerton Park the Final Straw! The name struck a chord with Harper and, on a whim, he picked it up.

Before he could do more than glance at the front page the queue moved on and he was stood before the girl behind the counter. He smiled at her through his beard; nothing, not even a reaction – she merely picked up and scanned the items one by one. Time was a smile from him once could have opened doors, or at the very least pushed them ajar. Those days were long gone, the grizzled beard, scarred cheek and travel worn face had put paid to that.

He paid for the four items on his card and then headed down the concourse to collect the hire-car, a silver Toyota Avensis which smelled of pastry, old cigarettes and desperate attempts to clean the interior. His day bag Harper deposited onto the passenger seat along with the newspaper while he put the water bottle into the cup holder. The fruit juice he opened and, while taking a long and much needed pull on it, he picked up the paper and began on the article.

Twerton Park was the scene of a robbery Saturday afternoon as Bath City were soundly beaten 3 – 1 thanks to two own goals and woeful defending. The result proved to be the final straw for the manager as the board confirmed less than an hour after full time that he’d been removed from his position…

Harper finished the orange juice and dropped the bottle onto the seat by the bag until he found a bin. Below the headline was a large picture, a dejected man in a black suit with his head in his hands, his little bald pat peeking out from above his fingertips. The figure in the photo was a picture of dejection and defeat. Harper picked up the wrap, opened the container and took a bite. It was peppery but too cold and the wrap itself felt slightly damp. Such was his life now, overpriced sandwiches and cheap hire-cars. He skimmed the article and then a little lower down continued to read,

… chairman Paul Williams said, through his assistant Maggie Heaton, “We had no alternative, the results have been poor all season and in truth this decision would likely have come regardless of the result. We’ve a full off season now to get the right man in charge and the right direction for the club – we’ve big hopes to bring football to a rugby town and we’ve already identified the right man for the job!”

He scanned up through the article to the name of the author, Ava Foster, filing the name away for future reference and started up the car. Into his phone he punched the address he’d been emailed and waited for the software to plot a map to his destination. Forty minutes later Harper Tanner, youth coach with Hibernian of Edinburgh pulled into the car park of Twerton Park, home of Bath City FC – currently languishing in the bottom half of the Conference South at the end of a disastrous season in which relegation was avoided by a single point.

The car park such as it was doubled as the staff car park for the Co-Op and Post office adjacent to the ground. As Harper got out of the car and stretched his legs he took in the corrugated iron stand, painted a fetchingly grim green. The cattle sheds as his mind immediately christened them looked out over a pitch surrounded on two sides by terraces, the remaining side was what could generously be described as a seated stand.

Harper fastened up his jacket and removed the sunglasses from his face. He wasn’t a handsome man by traditional standards – thirty one years old and retired from the professional game for a little over two seasons following a career ending injury he’d done his best to eat right and stay in shape. He face was weather worn, a ruddy beard covered the lower half of his face and his hair was a little longer than would be considered normal. He was however articulate and confident, carried himself with an easy air despite the slight limp, and his broad shoulders and powerful frame betrayed his past as a physical rather than technical player. His career hadn’t been storied but he liked to think he’d made a serviceable footballer. Strong in the air and tough tackling, he enjoyed the odd set piece and had managed two seasons in the SPL, the mainstay of his career however being reserved for the lower echelons of Scottish football.

The injury when it happened was innocuous enough, jumping for a corner he’d made the clearance and then when he landed his right leg had buckled under him. Harper didn’t know what to make of it, save that he was in unbelievable pain – shooting from his calf up to his thigh. He’d tried to stand with the help of his keeper. He’d tried to put weight on it but he couldn’t. The stretcher when it arrived couldn’t come soon enough. At the age of twenty eight he’d had his brush with his dreams but they’d fallen through. Twenty three games in the SPL and a single goal, scored against a woeful Kilmarnock team on a dreary Sunday afternoon in November. Not much to show for a career. He hadn’t realised as they carried him off that his career was over, or that his next one was already on the horizon. All he knew was that he felt like shit, he was in more pain than he’d ever thought possible and that Victoria Park was a miserable place to be. To make matters worse they lost the game, two one to Ross County – that fairly summed up his career to be honest.

Harper pulled the phone from his pocket and scrolled through the messages before clicking a few times for a dial tone. When the voice answered it was warm and rich, “Hello, Maggie Heaton speaking.”

“Hi Maggie, its Harper Tanner – I’ve just pulled into the car park. I can’t see an office, is it at the other side?” His accent betrayed a hint of his Irish heritage and more than a small smidgen of southern Scottish – the last ten years in Midlothian had certainly left an impression on his speech.

The other end of the line was quiet for a second or two.

“We’re just around the back of Charlie’s – the bar, should be directly in front of you? I’ll come around.”

The phone went dead at Harper’s ear and within moments a bubbly lady, perhaps mid fifties came around the corner. She was short with tightly cropped hair and a pair of glasses on a chain hung around her neck. The skirt she wore was a dark blue, bedecked with florals and on each arm was a collection of bangles and bracelets. As she waved and hurried across to him he mused that she wouldn’t have looked out of place at the Best Exotic Marigold. Or at Glastonbury.

They shook hands and exchanged pleasantries in the sunshine and then made their way through, past the black building that comprised the bar and into a small structure that served as the offices and admin facilities of the little non-league club.

“Mr Tanner – welcome, welcome! Come on in, get that jacket off! Maggie, coffee for me and for Harper..?”

“Er, the same – white no sugar please.”

The voice belonged to a man of ample frame behind a thin, cheap desk festooned with various papers and knickknacks. Next to the computer and facing out into the small room was a wooden sign reading Chairman in front of which someone had bluetacked “Needs a…”

Paul Williams had been chairman only briefly, since the club reverted to community ownership. He had rapidly earned a reputation for straight talking and a passion to develop the club into a community hub, a legacy for the town to be proud of.

“So Harper,” he began as the mugs of coffee arrived. “last year was a shambles, next year will be better. We’ve a little squirrelled away, we’re free of debt and we’re planning to invest in youth – make this team something to believe in. I’ve seen what you’ve done with the kids in Edinburgh with Hibs, that academy team there is playing some exciting football.”

He paused and took a swig of his coffee. Harper did the same, it was instant and not of an amazing quality but it was strong and hot. A biscuit, he thought, would have gone down a treat.

“I’m not going to piss about here Harper, we need a manager – I need a manager – and I know who I want; I want you. So, how about it; fancy bringing football to a rugby town?”

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