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[FM15] Raising Cain

The story of a failed young manager's attempt to resurrect his career ... and his life.
Started on 1 September 2015 by tenthreeleader
Latest Reply on 12 August 2016 by zappo137
13th December 2014 - Oxford United (4-5-10, 21st place) v Bury (8-3-8, 13th place)
Sky Bet League Two Match Day #20 – The Kassam Stadium, Oxford

There was a definite chill in the air. It was a good day not to have to travel.

A fast-moving weather system had brought freezing rain and gusty winds to southeast England that morning and it was pretty clear it wasn’t going to be a day for the faint-hearted.

Both teams needed points. Kyle’s needed them more than caretaker Alan Knights’ Shakers, but the reason Knight was in his club’s big chair even on a temporary basis was because they were underperforming.

It did appear from the state of the team, though, that Kyle had a first-choice Oxford XI pretty well picked out. There was a gulf of quality in certain areas of the team and that was one reason why it was entering the day 21st in the table.

And for some reason, Meades had his knickers in a twist when he arrived at the stadium. Freshly back from his injury suffered in the opening match of Kyle’s tenure, he sat brooding in his locker stall even though Kyle had put him on the bench sight unseen and match-fitness yet to be truly attained.

That was the state of Oxford’s squad players – an injured player could go right back into the eighteen without even a warmup match because he was so much better rusty than some of the reserves were when they were match-fit.

Kyle tried to figure out what was bothering his winger, but when the match started he found he had other things to worry about.

Unfortunately, one of those things to worry about was his keeper, Ashdown. The former Portsmouth man put his team behind singlehandedly – or rather, doublehandedly – when he allowed an easy thirty-yard strike by Bury’s Pablo Mills to go right through his hands and into the goal twenty minutes into the game.

It was a howler of the first order, and the keeper reacted as you might have expected – by throwing his head back in frustration and mouthing something that looked like the word “hack” if you could read lips, which Kyle couldn’t.

The Shakers led away, and that was cause for some of the more jaded home supporters in the South Stand to open fire on the hapless Us.

“No wonder you couldn’t play for Leeds,” one fan yelled at Ashdown as he punted the ball back toward the center circle for the kickoff.

Kyle frowned, but dared not turn his head lest he spark something more sinister. He wanted fans to back the players and Ashdown was human, for crying out loud. That said, mistakes like that were ones the team couldn’t afford and everyone knew it.

“Here comes the new boss, same as the old boss,” the same man yelled as the team prepared to put the ball back into play. As far as Kyle could tell, the man was in the minority, but as the first half hour dragged on, the murmurs and whistles of the crowd, such as it was, started to get louder.

Kyle poked his head out of the dugout and walked to the touchline as the crowd buzzed. It appeared as though he was still on a trial of sorts, as a couple of results against lower clubs did not a successful team make. The whistles from the crowd were evidence enough of that.

But now Kyle’s men were starting to climb back into the match. Hoban came close in twenty-five minutes to make people note that there were in fact two teams entitled to contest for the ball, and then Mullins blazed over on a bouncing setup from Maddison, who had teed him up just a bit too firmly.

Then, Bury made a defensive error as bad as Ashdown’s. Maddison had the ball a full forty yards from goal on the left side and laid a ball ahead for the run of Skarz down the left touchline. His ball in headed straight for defender Adam El-Abd.

The Egyptian saw the ball coming, raised his leg to intercept and clear his lines – and missed the ball. It bounded right onto the foot of the onrushing Hylton, who beat keeper Rob Lainton easily from five yards to level the match at 1-1 in 33 minutes.

Now level, the players returned to action with a spring in their step.

Two minutes later, they were dragging again, as schoolboy defending from both central defenders allowed Ryan Lowe to find bags of space between Whing and Wright to take Adam Drury’s cheeky little lob with time to spare. Ashdown had no chance this time, and the visitors again led the match.

The match got to half still at 2-1 for Bury and despite a half where his team had had much the better of the play, both of Bury’s shots on target in the first half had found the net.

“I’m not really sure what I just saw out there,” he told his players. “But I’d better see something better in the second half. The team that battled Shrewsbury so hard must have gone to the pub today.”

He made little attempt to hide his disdain. Being too nice was something he had been accused of doing at Torquay and he had taken that lesson to heart.

Besides, that loudmouth in the stand had started flapping his gums again before the break and it was starting to get annoying.

Kyle let Fazackerley play the ‘good cop’ in the team talk while he made his expectations abundantly clear just before sending the team out for the second half. And immediately, Oxford’s play began to brighten.

Everywhere except in front of goal, that is.

Hoban was the first to waste a gilt-edged chance, firing wide from less than ten yards as he hit the ball with the outside of his boot from a scramble in front of Lainton’s goal.

Then it was MacDonald, the set-piece hero of the Shrewsbury match, putting the ball deep into the mass of parked cars beyond the west fence.

And to make matters worse, there was Wright, the club captain, limping off bleeding after a heavy challenge on Tom Soares. He had won the ball but had gotten the worst of the exchange, replaced by Dunkley on the hour.

They looked the better team, Oxford did, but were unable to find a way through. Maddison took a corner which bounced around like a live grenade in the Bury six-yard box in 65 minutes, but the ball found its way into the grateful arms of the diving Lainton in the end. They were snakebit.

Just after seventy minutes, MacDonald proved it again by taking a free kick from thirty yards out that curved delightfully around the wall, past the despairing dive of Lainton – and squarely off the inside of the keeper’s right post.

Then, Whing changed everything by hustling to be first to the rebound, hitting the open goal in 71 minutes to get the match level again at 2-2.

“Never a dull moment with these lads,” Kyle told Fazackerley as the faithful who hadn’t yet started for home showed their full approval.

Being level again obviously agreed with the Us, who pressed forward over the next few minutes with a series of sharp crosses from both flanks, but the Shakers defense held firm. They tried the middle, with Maddison finding Hylton at the top of the penalty area with his back to goal.

He was felled by a challenge from behind by Ellis Plummer right on the line. Kyle looked at referee Stephen Martin.

The man in black wasted no time in pointing to the spot, while the Bury bench and visiting support went completely crazy. While they were arguing, Kyle noticed with a bit of alarm that Whing had grabbed the ball, which seemed odd on a club with at least two better penalty options in both of the strikers.

Yet the defender wanted the ball and the strikers let him have it. Whing whipped a perfectly taken penalty into Lainton’s top left corner to put Oxford ahead for the first time in the match.

It was at that time that Mullins waved to come off, having taken a kick to the calf in the buildup leading to the penalty. Kyle turned to the disaffected Meades, who did not look best pleased.

“Get in there and lock down that right side, you can do it,” Kyle said, and the player looked at him like he had two heads. His reaction was one of anger at being called upon to play.

Kyle frowned. He hated the raw petulance the player was showing him. But there was no one else on the bench Kyle could trust. So he changed his tack from Mr. Nice Guy to Mr. ‘Start Running’.

“Get in there before I change my mind and bust your arse to the reserves,” he snapped, signaling to the fourth official that a change was at hand.

Meades was pedestrian. Evidently he thought he was still not fully recovered, or he didn’t want to be out there, or some such thing.

Kyle brought on Rose for the knackered O’Dowda two minutes from time, but it was just to waste time. Bury had no fight left.

And in the end, the man behind the home bench was gone by the final whistle anyway. Kyle thought he had missed quite a fightback, but might well have been having a good time down the pub.

Oh, well. Sometimes life allows you to stick a thumb in someone’s eye. Those are among life’s best moments.

Oxford United: Ashdown: Bevans, Whing, Wright (captain, inj, Dunkley 60), Skarz, Mullins (inj, Meades 82), MacDonald, Maddison, O’Dowda (Rose 88), Hylton, Hoban. Unused subs: Clarke, Ashby, Balmy, Godden.

Oxford United 3 (Danny Hylton 33; Andy Whing 71, pen 82)
Bury 2 (Pablo Mills 20, Ryan Lowe 35)
H/T: 1-2
A – 4,106, The Kassam Stadium, Oxford
Man of the Match: Andy Whing, Oxford (MR 9.1)

# # #
While finding plenty of praise for the team for its second-half fightback, Kyle had quiet words with Meades after the match.

“You know, that shirt you’re wearing might not mean much to you today, but it means something to me. If I get any more pushback from you when I put you into a match someone else will wear that shirt. Don’t make me give you a warning. Now, get.”

He had neither the time nor the patience for such things and the fact that the word was issued quietly was a favor to the player.

His words to the press, though, were considerably more contrite.

“I did say last week I was looking forward to the officials’ decisions evening out. I guess I hadn’t thought they would even out quite so soon. I’ve learnt a lesson here.”

Knight, for his part, met the press in a decidedly bad mood. As the caretaker manager, he was obviously interested in claiming the top role for himself and to have a “bastard in the black” take a point away from him on his debut, well, that just wasn’t on.

Kyle watched Knight do the duty he had done just last week and didn’t envy him. He knew he’d be back in the chair complaining, perhaps even as early as next week if he was especially unlucky, and he also knew that such individual stitches held together the tapestry of the beautiful game.

Behind him, happy Oxford players headed to the car park to their vehicles and the start of their ‘victory evenings’. Whing led the parade, the central defender now having tallied three times in his last two matches – already marking a career high for the 30-year old backliner.

He had given everything that day, had dramatically improved his performance in the second half, and was off to dinner with his family a happy man.

Behind him trailed Meades, who gave Kyle a wide berth as he passed, shoulders slumped, chin drooped, and deep in thought.

“Good,” Kyle thought to himself. “There’s a lad who needs to sort things out.”

Finally, he was ready to leave for home himself. Jenna had been most patient, and sat in his office texting friends from London while he relived certain parts of the match again on video.

One of the things he looked at was the penalty – it was pretty clear to him that the foul had come outside the box and as such Mr. Martin had indeed evened things up in the officiating department from Kyle’s point of view.

And that stupid memo had now worked its way back to the top of Kyle’s ‘to-do’ pile. A holiday party. How could things get worse?

“Oh, well,” he thought, rising slowly from behind his desk with three more points safely in the bag. “Don’t invite trouble.”

Jenna stood and moved to hug her father and as they left the room, Kyle turned out the light. They took a left turn and walked toward the club offices and the outer door which led to the car park.

When they arrived, they passed one of the club’s non-executive directors, Frank Waterhouse, who had a lady in tow. There was something familiar about her but Kyle couldn’t quite place the face.

Waterhouse, who doubled as the club’s Chief Financial Officer, did it for him.

He stopped them by a quick wave of his hand to get Kyle’s attention and as he did, the lady stepped forward. Kyle’s eyes met hers and they both reacted with shock as they finally recognized each other.

“Kyle, this is our new director of promotions and sports marketing, Diana Moore. She comes to us from Hemel Hempstead, which is …”

“…no need, Mr. Waterhouse,” Kyle interjected. “I know exactly where Hemel Hempstead is. It’s about an hour east, and two leagues south, of here.” His tone was cutting.

She couldn’t look him in the eyes. And evidently she had forgotten one of the rules of job seeking, which is never to place yourself near the control of someone you once screwed right through the floor.

Kyle continued.

“Mr. Waterhouse, Ms. Moore and I are already acquainted. Let me simply say that if she wants my co-operation, she will have it, but only on my terms.”

# # #
Waterhouse had been quite stunned at Kyle’s behavior.

Whatever it was about Diana Moore, it had set Oxford’s manager off like a moon rocket. Waterhouse had been so startled, in fact, that he had failed to ask why Ms. Moore had generated the reaction she had. He was certainly entitled to that answer as a director.

But Kyle had not forgotten how Diana Moore had treated him. He wasn’t in the business of forgiving slights – goodness knew that people he had wronged were still making him pay – but the fact of the matter was now that she was on his team.

That didn’t mean he had to like it.

And when Kyle told Jenna that night about his new co-worker, the look of disgust on his teenage daughter’s face told him that, at least in his own house, he was on good ground.

And now, he wasn’t even the shortest-tenured manager in League Two.

After the weekend’s games, 15th placed Burton Albion sacked former Chelsea man and Dutch international Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, and Kyle’s first managerial opponent, AFC Wimbedon’s Neil Ardley, also got his walking papers.

Neil Cox was the new caretaker for the Dons and nobody knew what Burton was going to do.

Better news came when Coventry – and Maddison – quite happily agreed to extend the midfielder’s loan until the end of the season. The reason? Under Appleton, he wasn’t playing. Under Kyle, he was. That made things pretty simple.

The team headed to the Northeast and Hartlepool a pretty happy bunch. The Teessiders were in the middle of an ambivalent run of form, with their ten draws in twenty matches putting them just south of mid-table.

Kyle’s Oxford also had ten draws – but three straight wins in the league, which meant they were hopefully heading in an entirely different direction.

Stopping the Monkey Hangers would be a tough task, as they were a free-scoring bunch. And it had already been established that one of the reasons for Oxford’s travails before Kyle’s arrival was that they weren’t very good in their own defensive third.

Kyle thought he had a potential answer for that – Ashdown wasn’t going to keep his place for Hartlepool.

This was too bad – Kyle had quietly started negotiations with the keeper he already knew was the team’s immediate future on a new contract – but his howler against Bury meant he couldn’t stay between the sticks for the next match.

The atmosphere Kyle wanted to create was one where competition for places was key, and serious mistakes could result in a fear of loss of playing time. However, as thin as the squad was, most of the squad was well aware they’d be in or around the eighteen regardless of how they played.

Ashdown needed to learn that, though he was valued, he needed to play better. The contract offer helped with the first part. Ryan Clarke would help with the second.

# # #
Stacy looked across the table at Boyd Stokes.

They sat at dinner – at The Coach and Horses, no less – and she was trying to keep her eyes on her meal rather than on her dinner date.

For his part, Boyd was being his usual gallant self. And he was dressed well – he always dressed well. Stacy appreciated how he made her feel.

Today, though, Boyd was very interested in how Stacy looked.

They enjoyed a quiet dinner. She had had a difficult day at work with some patrons who could have been charitably described as … well, patronizing. Her mood wasn’t good, but she knew that Boyd could lift her spirits.

Ordinarily, her husband would have done that, but she knew he was on his way to someplace far away and that seemed to be all that mattered to him.

So, she was enjoying an evening with Boyd.

“You had a rough day,” he said sympathetically. He took a bite from his burger, on a brioche bun – he liked to think of himself as a meat-and-potatoes guy – and couldn’t help but smile at her.

For her part, Stacy’s tastes were a bit more refined – she preferred the Spatchcock wood pigeon, pearl barley and char-grilled radicchio – especially since her morning sickness had subsided a bit and she was able to keep more food in her stomach where it was supposed to be.

She wore her hair back in a simple pony tail. The seeming severity of the pullback of her hair from her temples actually accentuated her eyes, which Boyd liked quite a bit.

Her eyes were brown, and when she concentrated just so, they seemed to get bigger. Kyle had enjoyed gazing into them back in the day but now, that light seemed to have long since been extinguished.

Stacy felt sorry for herself in a way. She was separated by her own choice, pregnant and far from her other child, whom she naturally loved.

But, as Kyle would have said, “you didn’t have to leave”, and if there was anything she didn’t want to think about now, it was about what Kyle Cain would have said.

“Penny for your thoughts.” Boyd looked at her quizzically from across the table.

“Oh, nothing,” she said after a short pause to swallow a particularly good bite of radicchio. “Just thinking about the baby, actually.”

“Any worries?”

“The OB says no,” she answered. “But when you get to be my age and you haven’t been through something like this in fifteen years or so, you start to worry about certain things.”

“Such as?”

“Well, they say women around forty who have children have an increased risk of bearing a child with Down’s Syndrome.”

Boyd knew that, but he wanted Stacy to be the one to say it.

“Do you ever worry about it?”

“Not really,” she said. In that regard, she spoke the truth. “What I worry about more is my child growing up with a father.”

Boyd then tested the waters.

“Your child has a father,” he said, taking a sip from his glass of ale.

“In name only,” she responded.

“You could fix that.”

“He needs to fix that.” Her eyes narrowed, instead of growing wider as he liked, and this disturbed him.

“You’ve told me he slept around on you.”

“Yes. You know all that happened.”

In point of fact, she had enjoyed telling him the details because she was trying to read his reaction. What she found had been most pleasing. His hazel eyes had flashed with just a tiny bit of righteous indignation and she liked that he felt that way.

Kyle had started it. And really, he had been right when he told her to file papers if she didn’t like how things were going. Because she didn’t.

Yet, something inside her wasn’t quite ready to do that yet.

She had something else in mind.
# # #
“What I would like to do is talk with you about your plans for the club so I can begin appropriate marketing.”

Diana Moore sat at the far side of the manager’s desk at the Kassam Stadium. Kyle sat on the other side, the piece of mahogany serving as a demilitarized zone between them.

The desk had seen better days. So had Kyle, who woke up tired from a long night of video after the Bury match. Hartlepool was next, and there was an opportunity to directly leapfrog a match opponent in the table for the first time in his tenure if the team could win a fourth consecutive league match.

So Kyle had stayed up most of the night watching video and making notes. The festive period was coming up, so part of that video session had included watching, yet again, the FA Cup loss to Shrewsbury as well as video of Plymouth Argyle, the two opponents upcoming within a 72-hour span after Christmas.

So he was tired, and looked it.

“My plan is to win football matches,” he said plainly. “I am not beholden to any particular player, style or philosophy. Whatever helps this club win is what we will do.”

“That’s not exactly helpful,” Moore said, making a doodle on her note pad with a pencil as she spoke.

“Part of my job lies in not divulging my plans,” he answered.

“What, do you think I’ll run off and tell my counterpart at Portsmouth what you’re up to?” she asked. Her tone of sarcasm was duly noted.

Kyle looked at the younger woman. She wore her blonde hair up in a bun, revealing a slender neck, a soft, sloping jawline and strong shoulders. She wore a tasteful blue blouse in the club’s shade, with black slacks with wide bottoms to hide her shape. She was fit, this one was.

Back in the day, Kyle thought, I’d have seen women like her outside the player’s gate.

Yet that was unfair to Moore, an earnest, hard-working woman who wanted a future within the game she used to play as a girl. That had come out in conversation – she had been one of the better pioneers within the ladies’ game until repeated bouts with tendinitis had forced her to call time on playing and get into sports marketing instead.

That part of the conversation had gone pleasantly enough. But now, it seemed as though she was out of her depth in asking Kyle questions he really had no business answering.

At least, that’s how Kyle felt.

“You’d better not,” he finally said. He tried to smile. It didn’t come off right.

“Look, I know you were upset about what happened at Hemel Hempstead…” she began. She had barely gotten the words out of her mouth when Kyle waved a hand at her.

“Damn right I was,” he interjected. “But it wasn’t what Hemel Hempstead did to me that made me mad. It was what you did to me. And now here you are, in my office, looking for a bloody favor from me. How would you feel, Ms. Moore?”

She looked down at her paper and made another mark. This one was a dark, straight line, and Kyle didn’t fail to notice it. He had struck a nerve with the woman, and he was glad of it.

“I’d feel like I would want a co-worker to act a bit more professionally,” she said.

“Most people who have been caught out feel that way,” he replied.

“Like you got caught out at Leyton Orient, Mr. Cain?” She had evened the score.

“Let’s talk about professionalism again,” Kyle said, his voice hardening to just short of a snarl. “I don’t care for what you did to me and as of this moment, I don’t care for you. But since I want you out of my office, if you want my plan, here it is.”

“When the club can afford young players, bring them in and build around them. Since we can’t at the moment, give our existing young players a chance to prove their worth within the framework of an eleven which gives us the best chance to win each week. Due to the size of the squad, that eleven is probably not going to change much as long as the team is successful. Focus your attention on creating an atmosphere of support and success. That is what I am trying to build.”

The younger woman was now taking notes. She finished her writing and stood.

“Thank you, Mr. Cain,” she said. “Would you care to address the marketing team meeting at eleven o’clock with that information so they can hear it from you?”

Kyle knew perfectly well that this hour was right in the middle of training, but evidently Moore did not. So he replied in the best way that he could.

“Unfortunately, that time is during training,” he said. “So I’m afraid that doesn’t quite work for me.”

# # #
20th December 2014 – Hartlepool United (6-4-10, 16th place) v Oxford United (5-5-10, 19th place)
Sky Bet League Two Match Day #21 – Victoria Park, Hartlepool

Kyle was pleased to get out of town for the day.

The trip to County Durham had been quite pleasurable. Jenna was comfortable at home and though she wanted to visit her friends in East London, that would have to wait for the holiday period.

Sooner or later, Kyle was going to have to reach out to Stacy and that was going to sting. Jenna wanted to go home for awhile and he was going to have to allow it.

He had more pressing things on his mind, though, as he sat in the coach. The bus pulled onto Teesside and up Clarence Road. There, across the street from the Asda Hartlepool Superstore, sat Victoria Park.

As he looked at the anticipated Hartlepool team sheet prepared by his scouts, he thought the biggest problem Pools would have wouldn’t be getting a result, but rather diaper rash.

The anticipated starting eleven included three teenagers and a twenty-year old. But on their day, the kids could really play.

The problem, though, was finding the right day. As with the “girl with the curl”, when Pools were good they were very, very good but when they were bad ... well, they were awful. Part of the process of blooding young players involved taking occasional lumps, as Kyle well knew.

He hoped to catch them on a bad day.

Upon arrival at the ground, Kyle took Ashdown aside to tell him he was on the bench, and the reasons why. The keeper understood. He wasn’t happy, but he understood.

“You are the goalkeeper best suited to move this club forward,” Kyle said. “But I can’t have what I saw last week against Bury and I think you know that.”

He gave better news to Clarke, who got the start in goal. Whing, the hero of the Bury match, could hardly wait to get back out there, and his partnership with Wright, vice-captain and captain respectively, looked great on paper.

Where it lacked was in getting opposing strikers marked, so Kyle’s words to his central pairing were plain. He expected better from both of them.

Otherwise, the eleven looked the same as from Bury. There was no reason to change it.

At the start, Oxford caught their hosts on the hop, with Hylton’s square ball setting up Hoban perfectly in front of goal with just thirty seconds on the clock, but the Irishman fired wide from just ten yards. Oxford could have led before anyone on the park had broken a sweat, but the chance had gone begging.

After that, it looked as though Hartlepool’s ‘good’ kids had showed up. That was bad for Kyle’s Oxford.

One of their teenagers, midfielder Aaron Tshibola, came back in nine minutes, barely missing Clarke’s right post from just inside the area, and referee Bobby Madley gave the home team a free kick from just outside the Oxford area only to see Sam Collins fire over.

Hylton then got the best chance of the match, beating Pools’ offside trap and being sent through clear by Maddison, only to miss the target to the right.

Kyle was near apoplexy on the bench. Two wonderful chances, and neither one had found the target.

His only solace came from the fact that Hartlepool was just as inept in front of goal. Nicky Featherstone managed to drag a shot wide in 33 minutes where it would have been easier to hit the target, and Michael Duckworth hit Clarke right in the chest with an effort from less than ten yards out three minutes later, with the keeper not knowing much about the effort but forcing a corner in any event.

Hartlepool had been much the better side, and as Madley prepared to blow the whistle after two minutes of added time, Kyle turned back to the bench to pick up his wipeboard for the halftime team talk which he hoped would wake up his lads.

As he turned back, he saw MacDonald strip veteran striker Marlon Harewood of the ball near the right touchline and force an effort into the box. Defender Johnny Burn couldn’t cut out the effort, which fell right at the feet of Callum O’Dowda. The unlikeliest of goals had given Oxford a 1-0 lead with the last kick of the first half.

It had changed everything and nothing at the same time. Oxford had a lead it hardly deserved, and Kyle made that plain at halftime.

“Good teams find ways to win matches like these. You are catching them on a good day. Be better in the second half and find a way to hold this lead. You’re resilient and I like that, but you’re letting kids run you right off the middle of the ground. Take the midfield back and let’s take home three points today.”

The second half began and it was very similar to the first. Pools’ kids held possession in vast swaths, but now were starting to find the target with more regularity.

Clarke denied Darren Holden with a fine save in fifty minutes, and stopped Tshibola with some ease two minutes later. Harewood then outjumped Whing right in the center of the six-yard box on Pools’ next trip up the park but the striker nodded over the top.

Pools made a double substitution just after the hour and given that Harewood had been a first half substitution, the introduction of Marvin Morgan and Tommy Miller put the home team out of bench moves.

Advantage, Oxford. At least in that sense.

Pools boss Ronnie Moore had seen the opportunity to grab an equalizer, with his club playing well and putting Oxford’s hands to the pumps. Clarke turned Morgan’s goal-bound effort behind for a corner in 66 minutes.

From the corner, Michael Duckworth headed on the effort – right onto the foot of Burn, who shot in one motion. Clarke then committed what could only be described as highway robbery, making a stupendous reflex save which not only denied the defender coming forward, but pushed the rebound past him and onto the boot of Whing, who thundered it into touch.

High-fives and general slapping of hinder parts abounded among the visitors after the effort, and Oxford soon cleared its lines. Kyle looked at Ashdown on the bench, and saw the veteran keeper was applauding with his teammates. Good. But it also looked like he had gotten the message.

Duckworth fired wide again a few minutes after that but Kyle already knew it was time for fresh legs. Wright hadn’t had the best of matches, and Kyle pulled his captain in favor of Dunkley as part of his own double move in 75 minutes. Hoban, who had been pedestrian up front, was also sacrificed in favor of the loanee, Godden, at the same time.

Marvin Morgan was next to miss the target, misfiring in 80 minutes, but then made Kyle go to his bench for his third substitution moments later when he met Whing in a clash of heads which left the Oxford man apparentlty concussed.

Whing was carried to the touchline and Meades was called upon. This time, the conversation upon the player’s entry was much more professional, and Kyle went to the stand to check on his defender.

Chief physio Andy Lord was treating the player and Kyle noted that he hadn’t been taken straight to the changing room – a good sign.

“Doesn’t look too bad, Kyle,” Lord told him. “He’s got some symptoms but right now it just looks like a nasty knock.”

It did indeed. The defender had developed a mouse over his right eye from where the impact had taken place and that was where the icebag was going to put a lid on the rather spectacular swelling which can accompany injuries around the eye socket.

But soon, the match was over. It had been one of those days.

In ninety minutes, Oxford had managed exactly one shot on target. Yet, it had brought home three points.

Oxford United: Clarke: Bevans, Whing (injured, Meades 82), Wright (captain) (Dunkley 75), Skarz, Mullins, MacDonald, Maddison, O’Dowda, Hylton, Hoban (Godden 75). Unused subs: Ashdown, Rose, Balmy, Ashby.

Hartlepool United 0
Oxford United 1 (Callum O’Dowda 45+2)
H/T: 0-1
A – 3,442, Victoria Park, Hartlepool
Man of the Match: Callum O’Dowda, Oxford (MR 7.7)

# # #
“I won’t say we were good. I won’t say we even deserved the three points. But we’ll take them. I wouldn’t blame Ronnie Moore a scrap if he felt hard done by today, but I was very proud of the way we competed when we did not have our best day.”

For a change, Kyle had taken the high road. He had already heard Moore’s comments – and his animus toward Oxford and its new boss had been duly noted – but as the proud owner of three brand-new points in the table, he could afford to be more gracious than his host had been.

There was no invitation to meet for a drink after the match – an expression of petulance from Moore, Kyle was sure – but he hardly cared. His team had jumped past Moore’s in the table and now, thoughts of relegation were nearly a thing of the past.

There was plenty of good to talk about. The team had kept the second clean sheet of Kyle’s tenure but its first of the season that wasn’t from Jamie Ashdown. Prior to Kyle’s arrival, the Us hadn’t kept a clean sheet in the league since September.

Clarke had been tremendous. There was no denying that his save on Burn had saved Oxford two points. Kyle told him so after the match. He’d have been daft not to have acknowledged it.

Meanwhile, the word on Whing was that he would miss about two weeks. His concussion wasn’t a bad one, but obviously keeping him symptom-free would be key over the coming days.

On the coach ride home, Kyle caught up on some news.

Bristol Rovers had hired John McMahon to his first managerial job at age 61. The first thing the longtime Shrewsbury and Tranmere coach had done was to strip defender Mark McChrystal of the captaincy. That hadn’t gone particularly well.

That said, seeing some different faces was bound to help them. By a quirk of scheduling, Rovers had played four of their preceding five matches against Welling – both their Conference fixtures as well as consecutive ties in the FA Trophy, which required a replay to settle.

Once the news had been digested, Kyle got a chance to look at the fixture list again, and this time he tried to avoid indigestion. As the players ate a boxed catered meal on the way home, he saw that Dame Fortune had turned its back on Oxford in terms of opposition.

Part of the good run the club currently enjoyed was due to the team playing lower-level opposition. That would change over the festive period.

Boxing Day would see the Us host third-placed Shrewsbury, with a trip to Plymouth two days later to face second-placed Argyle.

Kyle hoped the team would have a special effort in store for Shrewsbury – he felt they owed Micky Mellon’s side after being dumped out of the FA Cup – and God only knew what the players would have left in the tank for Argyle.

Portsmouth was four points clear of Plymouth in the table and seven points ahead of Shrewsbury. Victory for Oxford on Boxing Day would put a serious cramp in Mellon’s style, Kyle was sure.

After the holidays, the schedule was again more kind – the bottom two clubs, Cheltenham and Dag and Red, awaited the Us.

But even that had its drawbacks – Oxford would be done with both relegation candidates for the season by the middle of January. The run-in, where Kyle’s bread was buttered in terms of a top-half finish, would be much more difficult.

But yet, it was about to get worse.

Kyle now had to run a holiday party he would have preferred not to have to attend.

# # #
The Spice Lounge was decked out as one might have expected for a blowout party.

The popular Indian restaurant on the north side of town was the site of the team’s holiday event and with a tidy winning streak in their back pockets that had been extended just 48 hours previously, people were bound to be in the best of holiday spirits.

Except for Kyle.

Being Scrooge wouldn’t do, of course, but “Bah, humbug!” was definitely first on his list of pet phrases as he pulled his car into the restaurant lot an hour before the event began.

Jenna was with him. That helped, and in a way she was his security blanket. No one would dare bother the manager about his party history with his daughter standing right next to him, would they?

No, of course not. No one would say a word.

That said, it was the first party he had attended since that day.

He had been ashamed. Embarrassed. Guilty as hell. And he knew it.

Everyone knew it. What had started as a fun time earlier in the day, when Charlotte had sent him a selfie of her wearing nothing but a Santa’s helper hat – had wound up nearly destroying Kyle’s family.

That was understandable. He had been foolish. Very foolish, and he was still paying the price for that foolishness to the present day.

Club media boss Tim Flores approached Kyle with the same kind of tasseled red and white cap Charlotte had worn that day and handed it to him.

“Here you go, boss,” the young man said, and Kyle frowned.

“Tim, you have no way of knowing why I’m saying this, but there’s no way in hell I’m wearing that.”

“Why, Kyle? It’s Christmas.”

Jenna interjected to save her father’s blushes. “Bad memories,” she simply said. “Please, Mr. Flores, do as he asks.”

Puzzled, the young man went to find Fazackerley and gave him the hat instead. The assistant manager understood. He didn’t let on that he understood, but he did.

Kyle was the boss. He had made that abundantly clear. He had wanted nothing to do with this party, but club tradition held sway even over his authority in this case and Fazackerley was quite sure that his boss rankled under the yoke of having to have a good time.

Authority was important to Kyle, though he tried not to let on that it was important. He guarded that authority like a lioness protecting her brood.

After all, he had spent enough time trying to reacquire it after being sacked at Torquay. It meant something to him.

The players and staff began to arrive. They were in the mood to have a good time, and he couldn’t blame them. The team was playing brilliantly and he wanted them in just the right frame of mind to try to gain revenge against Shrewsbury.

That meant being careful this evening, which was another reason Kyle hated the idea of holiday parties.

Many a player – not just him – had come to grief at a holiday party for any number of reasons. For example, there was really nothing worse for a player’s short-term outlook than for his manager to catch him chundering behind a bush after too much of the grape at such an event.

The food began to arrive from the kitchen and punctually at 6:00, the event started.

While Kyle prepared to make his comments, Eales stepped to a podium at the front of the dining room, which had been rearranged for the private party.

“Thank you for being here this evening,” the chairman began. His traditional suit of Oxford blue seemed a bit out of place in a Christmas-themed environment, making him look like the thumb freshly struck by a hammer.

“I want to thank you for the year just past,” he continued. “We have been through quite a bit at this club, and I won’t pretend that some of the time we’ve spent at work and on the pitch has been easy. It has not. But we have reached the end of the year with a good degree of optimism for what lies ahead.”

As he spoke, Diana Moore entered the room, freshly arrived – and technically, late. Not that it mattered. She stood at the back, behind a group of players who acted like they were interested in what the chairman had to say.

“At the end of last month we brought a new manager on board and results have been better,” Eales said, stating the obvious. “We’ve announced a new relationship with Manchester United. We think the foundation stones are in place for a better future. But these are only first steps.”

“We want to own our own stadium. We want to find ways to increase revenue so we can do more of the things we need to do to be successful over the long-term. But we’re making progress, if the last month is anything to go by. And we think it is.”

He drew polite applause, and Eales felt it safe to continue.

“With that, I want to wish you a happy holiday season, a happy Christmas, and hope you have a great time this evening. Now, let’s hear from the manager.”

Kyle, very reluctantly, stepped forward.

# # #
He was greeted with applause – even from Moore, which he found surprising. He was watching.

“Thank you,” he said, fumbling for a piece of paper from his pocket on which he’d written the bare minimum of notes. He wore casual clothes and nothing in club colors – along with the rest of the squad.

“First things first, if anyone tries to skive training tomorrow because they have too much to drink tonight, I’ll have your parts in a sling so fast you won’t know what hit you,” he said. It was not intended to be a laugh line.

It wasn’t.

“By the way, Happy Christmas,” he added, and that was supposed to be for laughs. Thankfully, that was how his words were received.

“Now, it’s the role of the manager to do a few things tonight, to thank people and give out a few awards which you lot have voted on before I arrived here. First, I’ve been told that Diana Moore of our marketing department took over this event when she came here and has done a good job of putting things together. So please thank her.”

The assembled gave her a nice hand. Kyle opted not to, but then he was speaking so that was excusable.

“And of course, Mr. Eales, without whom none of us have jobs,” Kyle added quickly, and that drew additional smiles.

“But what we’re really hoping for is that people have a nice time tonight and enjoy some of the spirit of the season. Not spirits, players. Spirit.” Kyle wasn’t going to make anyone forget Johnny Carson in his delivery, but he was good enough.

He finished his comments, and the players and assembled staff went through the buffet and drink lines. It looked like it wasn’t going to be such a bad night after all.

Kyle waited until the end to get his food, and sat at a table with Jenna, Eales and his staff to enjoy some music and the evening.

As he ate, Eales bent Kyle to his ear for a quiet word.

“Nice job so far,” he said. “But it’s been brought to my attention that you don’t care very much for Diana Moore.”

“No, sir, I do not,” Kyle said, trying not to bite his employer’s ear off in the process and instead settling for a bite of a wonderful crescent samosa. He was getting ready to tell Eales the reason for his animus when the chairman interjected.

“Fix that,” Eales said plainly. “I’m not saying that you have to be friends, but I am saying that at this club we treat each other better than you treated her. I’ve heard from Mr. Waterhouse about this and I promised him I’d put it right.”

Kyle simply looked at his boss with as close to a neutral expression as he could muster.

“Ms. Moore brought up my personal situation, and my estranged wife, to my face, Mr. Eales,” Kyle said, as evenly as he could. “I considered that to be out of bounds. Will you discuss this with her as well?”

Eales sidestepped the issue.

“You are in the position of authority,” he said.

“If that’s the case, I would consider Ms. Moore’s conduct to be insubordinate,” he said. “I don’t want to make a big deal out of this but I won’t tolerate an employee referencing my personal life.”

Eales, for his part, took Kyle’s words graciously.

“I will speak with her. But just consider this a quiet word, Kyle,” Eales said. “I don’t want to make a big deal out of this and I know you probably don’t either. I get that your job doesn’t hinge on marketing but on results. And you’re off to a brilliant start. But please, don’t let this get out of hand. As a favor to me.”

Kyle nodded. The last thing he needed was to fail with his employer and so he simply agreed.

“I’ll do my best,” he said.

# # #
Kyle held his breath – and sometimes, his nose – through the rest of the evening.

His players, nearly all of whom had brought their wives or girlfriends, had a great time. He met most of them and noted that even in a smallish city like Oxford, if you played football you could do pretty well in the romance department.

He handed out the club awards, including the Chairman’s Player of the Year Award, the Captain’s Award, the Players’ Teammate of the Year Award and others.

The highlight for Kyle was the gag awards, most notably the Miss of the Year Award, known as the “Barn D’Or”. It went to Hoban, for a truly grievous misfire in the first match of the season against Dag and Red when he managed to scoop over the top of the goal from a range of about four yards. In laughing embarrassment, the Irishman actually walked backwards to the podium to claim his prize – a deflated practice ball.

He thought it might not be so bad a night after all.

He hadn’t gone near Moore – the chairman had said he needed to be nicer to her but that didn’t mean he was going to seek her out – and he found Fazackerley surprisingly good company.

“I told you it wasn’t going to be that bad, Kyle,” the older man said, smiling as he always seemed to do.

As long a career as Fazackerley had had – he was Blackburn’s all-time appearance leader when he left the club with 671 matches over eighteen seasons – he had never been a full-time boss in England. He had assisted at Chester City, York City and Bury during his playing days before his only managerial role, as player-manager at Kumu in Finland.

Upon returning to England, he coached and assisted at Newcastle, Blackburn, Bolton, Barnsley, Huddersfield, Leicester and Birmingham – and famously, for Kevin Keegan’s England.

So he had seen a few gatherings like this over a lifetime in the game. Kyle started to relax.

It was then that he saw a woman who looked surprisingly like Stacy enter the room right through the front door.

“Can’t be,” he said, taking a sip of ale.

“What can’t be?” Fazackerley asked.

“I thought I just saw my wife,” Kyle answered.

Of course, it was Stacy, having her first communication with her husband since his hiring.

“Hello, Kyle,” she said, standing alongside him at the table, where there was no room to sit. “Mind if I drop in?”

“Not at all,” he said, moving to find her a chair.

Fazackerley moved to his left so Stacy would have room, and Kyle introduced his wife to the assembled.

“A pleasure, I’m sure,” she said, with a ready smile. Then she turned to Kyle.

“Thank you for inviting me,” she said.

“I wondered if an invitation would get through to the London Public Library,” Kyle answered, with his own smile in return. Jenna seemed happy to see her mother as well, and the two shared a hug while the ice in the room created by Stacy’s arrival slowly melted away.

He didn’t ask where she was living. She didn’t offer.

Kyle had told Eales at the time of his hiring that he was estranged from his wife, so he was mildly surprised to see her simply show up at the holiday party, even with an invitation.

For his part, Kyle was happy to see her. She looked well, she certainly didn’t seem to be in any physical distress, and she was starting to show just a little bit.

She wore her best coat – a navy blue dress coat which hugged her very nicely – and a black knee-length skirt. She looked good. Kyle really started to loosen up and even introduced her to a few of the players, starting with his captain and vice-captain.

That all seemed well and good, and as Kyle bought his wife a non-alcoholic drink and returned to the table, she looked up at him with a lovely smile.

“There’s a reason I accepted your invitation,” she said, as Kyle sat next to her.


“Yes,” she said. “It’s Christmas. Aren’t good things supposed to happen at Christmas?”

# # #
26th December 2014 – Oxford United (6-5-10, 17th place) v Shrewsbury Town (13-4-4, 3rd place)
Sky Bet League Two Match Day #22 – The Kassam Stadium, Oxford

Sometimes, bad fortune is extra bad.

Clarke, who had played so brilliantly against Hartlepool, turned his ankle in training the day after the party. That threatened to wreck Kyle’s Christmas.

The keeper could take a spot on the bench and that was good, but it meant Ashdown would return to goal for the matchup against Town. Whing’s concussion symptoms had abated but he still hadn’t been cleared to play by the physio staff, so Dunkley deputized for the deputy captain.

And Will Hoskins was back, on the bench for the first time in Kyle’s tenure after making it through ninety minutes with the reserves without a setback. That balanced out Clarke’s injury in terms of impact on Kyle’s Christmas, but even though Hoskins was healthy, he was far from match-fit after six weeks on the shelf with a weight-bearing injury.

Despite all that, there was another motivator for Boxing Day: it was Shrewsbury and Kyle wanted revenge for the FA Cup.

It wasn’t so much the result that annoyed Kyle as the way in which the result came about. The offside goal which gave Town the lead was galling, and so was the complete breakdown which had doubled the arrears a moment later. Kyle chose to use that chaotic stretch as motivation.

“You owe these guys. They got a big break to go ahead of you in the Cup and they hit you when you were down after they got their break. This team should have beaten Shrewsbury on its ground. Now you get them on yours. Show them who’s boss.”

Oxford responded to Kyle’s words almost immediately, pushing Shrewsbury on the back foot from the opening kickoff.

Seven minutes into the match, Maddison retreated to just short of the halfway line to retrieve a Shrewsbury clearance, looked to his right, and put a slide-rule ball down the right to MacDonald, who caught up with it just short of the byline.

The winger’s cross into the box found Hylton, who deflected it from a very sharp angle to the left of keeper Jayson Leutwiler – and the ball changed direction, banking off the keeper’s leg and into the goal to fire the Us into a shock lead at home.

The crowd, which was slightly larger than for the last home match, was into things quickly as a result. What they saw was a virtually antiseptic half from the home team.

Defender Connor Goldson was harried into conceding on a corner on a backpass to Leutwiler thanks to a great play by Hoban, who chased the defender down like a hound tracking a fox. The set piece came to nothing, but Oxford wasn’t letting their higher-placed visitors come up for air.

Wright missed a piledriver in fifteen minutes and another searching MacDonald cross forced Jermaine Grandison to head behind for yet another corner a few minutes later. It was just great stuff from the home team.

Johnny Mullins had a pair of chances in the first half hour as well, but both misfired before he forced defender Bobby Grant to head behind his own goal again for another Oxford corner.

Kyle sat impassively, getting up from time to time to encourage his lads, and then sitting back down to watch them perform. Fazackerley looked on with as much satisfaction as Kyle, but it was pretty obvious that this first half was made of some special stuff.

Shrewsbury changed alignment from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1 midway through the first half to try to put a cap on Kyle’s dominant midfield, but it really didn’t help. The Us’ movement off the ball was superb, the ball went into space at the right times and Leutwiler was kept quite a busy man.

Ryan Woods went into the book for a trip on Hylton in 41 minutes, but Kyle was considering a move for MacDonald on the right wing. He had picked up a card and a very hard knock in retaliation for the challenge that earned him the booking, and Kyle was thinking about getting Meades into the game early as MacDonald hobbled along.

But the Scot had been influential, and just before half he proved it again. His throw from the right wing was headed right back to him by Mullins, and MacDonald whipped a perfectly-taken cross right into the middle of the six-yard box for the run of Hoban, and the Irishman didn’t miss.

No Barn D’Or for him, and Oxford had doubled its advantage right before the half.

To say the mood in the changing room was good would be an understatement. The players remembered the shock and humiliation they felt at conceding four to Town in the Cup and now Kyle knew that the mood of his squad was different than against Cheltenham.

Then, he had let the players enjoy their lead. Not so today.

“Great start, but there’s better in you and to take the three points you’ll need to show it. This was a wonderful first half but now is the time to really turn the screws on these guys. Take it to them. Make them sorry they showed up to play you!”

He turned to leave for the hallway so Fazackerley could do the individual talks, but then wheeled to face his team one more time.

“Send a bloody message!”

They did.

Goodness, did they.

Shrewsbury had had a few decent opportunities in the first half but once the second half began, those chances simply vanished.

Kyle’s side was so clearly the better team he was able to make early moves to replace the carded and nicked-up MacDonald with Meades, and to replace Hylton, who had also been dinged up, with Hoskins, who needed match time.

That was in 67 minutes. One minute later, Meades was celebrating his first goal for the club and just the third of his career, on his first touch of the match.

Maddison had started it, as he always seemed to, with a great ball to the right for the run of Hoban. The striker held the ball, which at first seemed puzzling to Kyle, until he saw what Hoban had seen.

The Irishman saw Meades chugging up the right, unmarked, and waited for the right moment to continue the play by feeding the overlap. But Meades didn’t cross.

He worked to his left and made space for himself. His low shot beat Leutwiler to his far post to the annoyance of the keeper, the anger of Micky Mellon and the rapturous adulation of the home faithful, who were about to see another three points safely home.

Kyle’s last substitution was Jéremy Balmy, the Frenchman who had yet to see senior action for Kyle. He deserved the chance to play and with the match well in hand, Kyle gave him that chance.

Unfortunately, Meades then limped off injured seven minutes from time after getting his ankle stepped on during a foray down the right, which forced Oxford to ten men for the last minutes of the match.

Shrewsbury nearly took advantage. Three minutes from time, Grandison’s long ball found the stride of David Norris, who then played the ball to the left for Mickey Demetriou.

The winger then crossed into the box, but the wind, which was beginning to gust, grabbed hold of the ball. It sailed over the despairing reach of Ashdown, who had come out to cut the cross – but Skarz was there to clear the ball off the line, playing behind his keeper.

With that kind of fortune smiling broadly upon United, Kyle could relax. Minutes later, revenge was well and truly achieved.

Oxford United: Ashdown: Bevans, Dunkley, Wright (captain), Skarz, Mullins, MacDonald (Meades 67), Maddison, O’Dowda (Balmy 71), Hylton (Hoskins 67), Hoban. Unused subs: Clarke, Rose, Ashby, Godden.

Oxford United 3 (Hylton 7, Hoban 43, Meades 68)
Shrewsbury Town 0
H/T: 2-0
A – 4,470, The Kassam Stadium, Oxford
Man of the Match: Jake Wright, Oxford (MR 8.2)

# # #
“I’m ecstatic. How did you think I’d be?”

Kyle was over the moon at a fantastic result against a good League Two side. That brought the current league run to five wins on the spin, and thoughts of relegation were now banished from anyone’s thoughts. Fifteen points out of fifteen is a great way to make that happen.

The win was comprehensive and revenge was sweet. There would be a third meeting of the clubs – at Shrewsbury – late in the campaign but by then Kyle hoped to have all the team’s goals reached by then.

His own personal brief of mid-table was within sight a lot sooner than he thought it might be. It was like a dream. Everything that had gone wrong at Torquay was going right now.

With the exception of the Cup tie at Shrewsbury, for a change nobody could think of anything bad to say about Kyle Cain’s management.

That seemed odd.

But as he talked with a modest press gaggle after the match, including BBC Oxford and the local papers, Kyle couldn’t help but feel confidence starting to build.

“This is a very satisfying run of results,” he said. “I can’t remember, even when I was an active player, when I enjoyed a league run more than this one.”

“Why is that?” It was Bill Churchill of the Mail, a longtime football reporter and longer-time cynic.

“There’s nothing like instant success,” Kyle replied. “These players have bought in and they’ve done everything they’ve been told to do. I’m just tickled to death for these lads, they’ve been brilliant in every way.”

“And if you go to Plymouth and crash and burn, what then?”

Kyle frowned, and defended his players perhaps more robustly than he ought to have.

“This isn’t the kind of team that will go and crash and burn,” he said sharply. “Even when we lost, they players played hard and well. I don’t care for that type of question.”

“But it is a possibility,” Churchill insisted.

“So is the Kassam Stadium getting hit by a meteor,” Kyle shot back. “These players are full of belief now. They shoot at the net, they think they’re going to bury it. They go up for a header or a second ball, they think they’re going to win it. They go for a 50-50 challenge, they expect the other guy to back out. That’s what footballers are supposed to think, Bill. Let’s let them enjoy that before we go tearing them down, yeah?”

“You have these players playing well, I’ll admit that.”

“Big of you, Bill.”

Kyle couldn’t leave well enough alone. But in this case, he felt it was warranted.

Upon leaving the stadium, he learned that Burton Albion, the team immediately ahead of his in the table, had hired former Norwich and Blackpool boss Nigel Worthington to take over a team of which more had been expected.

But once the players had left the changing room, it was straight onto the coach for the trip to the southwest coast. With only a day to prepare, the plan was for the club to stay two nights in Plymouth to try to recover some strength without having to waste a travel day.

Nineteen players and the coaching and physio staff boarded the coach. The injured players weren’t hurt badly enough to miss any time – which was good because Kyle’s senior squad was threadbare enough as it was. But the physios would be able to tell who needed to rest for the trip to League Two’s second-placed club.

As the coach rolled southwestward for the second game of the festive period, Kyle’s mind was racing on how to earn a sixth league win on the spin. That would be Oxford’s best run of form for nearly thirty years. He wanted that win.

But he needed rest even more. As Kyle contemplated even more Plymouth video, he leaned back in his chair, where his energy came to an end. He fell fast asleep.

# # #
28 December 2014 – Plymouth Argyle (14-4-4, 2nd place) v Oxford United (7-5-10, 16th place)
Sky Bet League Two Match Day #23 – Home Park, Plymouth

Now this was going to be a test.

Fresh off the coach from the big victory over Shrewsbury, Kyle’s Oxford moved up in the table – and straight into an away test against the team directly above their last opponents in the table.

Portsmouth was quite comfortable atop League Two with a seven-point cushion over Plymouth Argyle but still, the home team was formidable.

The coach trip had been long. Plymouth is the southernmost and westernmost city in England to host league football, and is also the largest community in England to have never played in the top flight.

Neither of those factoids really mattered to Kyle. What mattered, of course, were the points.

The team did video work on the day between matches but that was it. Under orders from the manager to simply lay around all day, the players did just that.

Small squads can get chewed up and spit out by the festive period, with matches on Friday and Sunday, and Kyle well knew it.

Knowing that victory could move his team past Burton Albion and into 15th place, Kyle tried to keep as much of the magic from the Shrewsbury eleven as he could.

One change was in goal, where Clarke again came in for Ashdown. Mullins moved to right back in place of Bevans, and Rose slotted into the holding role in place of Mullins.

Dunkley once again deputized for Whing in the center of the back line alongside Wright but the front three-fourths of the midfield was the same as ever. Kyle gave Hoskins another try in place of Hylton, as he tried to find a striker in peak form.

Whing was expected back for the weekend matchup against tail-end Cheltenham at the Kassam but the physios didn’t think it wise to risk him just yet and Kyle listened to more learned opinion.

The teams lined up to take the pitch and Kyle knew this would be the best test yet for his team. For once, he relished the challenge rather than wanting to run from it.

He took his place in the dugout and watched his charges go to work. It didn’t take long before Oxford threatened.

In the fourth minute, Skarz shook loose down the left, but crossed early instead of going to the byline. The cross was too long and hit the nearly-antiquated Plymouth captain, Paul Wotton, in the chest. He tried to clear his lines, but made it only as far as Hoban at the top of the area.

The defenders converged on the Irishman and as they did, he simply slipped the ball to the right to the completely unmarked Will Hoskins, who slotted past Luke McCormick with almost ridiculous ease.

That was the stuff dreams were made of and it looked as though Oxford was picking up right where it had left off.

The dream lasted three minutes before the Pilgrims pegged them back.

A long ball from Lee Cox down the right found Dean Rittenberg a step ahead of Skarz. The midfielder went to the byline, slipped around Skarz as he tried to close, and crossed to the far edge of the six-yard box where Tyler Harvey was there to head past the stranded Clarke to level the scores after seven minutes.

The Home Park faithful showed their appreciation and Kyle turned to Fazackerley for a word.

Unfortunately, the word was profane, and the assistant manager couldn’t really disagree.

It was a great start for both teams, though, and that was good for the neutral. Not that Kyle was one of those.

Both teams earned corners within the next few minutes and Kyle was concerned at how easily the Pilgrims seemed to be finding shooting opportunities. They were second, after all, for a reason.

But then Maddison blazed wide from twenty yards and sent Plymouth hearts into throats, and the game was on again.

Hoban and Skarz played a two-man game down the left flank of the Plymouth defense and again the fullback provided the cross into the area, an artful effort toward the back post.

Once the ball arrived there, MacDonald outleaped defender Carl McHugh and nodded the ball into the ground, where it bounded over the onrushing McCormick’s dive and home for a 2-1 lead in 14 minutes.

Opposing teams weren’t supposed to do this to the Pilgrims, and their fans, who vastly outnumbered the 300 or so traveling supporters in the Barn Park End, were suddenly making a lot less noise than their visitors.

Referee Martin Atkinson was forced into action a few minutes later as tempers flared after the fast start. MacDonald was booked for a rash challenge on Jamie Richards, and Wotton evened the score by finally catching up to Hoskins and making the Oxford hitman pay as he tried to feed the right wing with a crunching, and late, challenge.

As Hoskins had just returned from injury, Kyle wasn’t best pleased, and wasted no time in letting the officials know. Hoban and Plymouth’s Lewis Alessandra then traded chances as the play went end to end. It didn’t look like lower league stuff, that was for certain.

Things finally settled down a bit as the teams couldn’t last that kind of pace. The best chance before half saw Maddison firing over from a good shooting position near the top of the Plymouth penalty area, and Atkinson’s halftime whistle was greeted with a bit of relief by Kyle, who had something to say.

”You’re on the verge of a great double. But what I need to see from you in the second half is a commitment to the kind of defensive play which wins games. They’re good, Plymouth is, but if you can show me what you’ve got left in the tank in the second half you’ll get a couple of days off to enjoy what you’ve done. You can do this.”

He thought the idea of getting a little rest after a difficult period would encourage the players to dig down deep and find that little bit extra he knew would be necessary to secure a very nice victory indeed.

He was also a bit alarmed by the new attitude of the Pilgrims once the second half began. Atkinson immediately went to his cards to book Aaron Bentley for scything down Hoban barely a minute into the session.

If the goal was to get the Us attention, it certainly worked. Their focus was suddenly marvelous.

Plymouth had used two of its substitutions at halftime, with Wooton coming off along with Alessandra. They showed intent, and a lot more pace, by their moves, but it was Oxford who carved out the first good chance of the half, with Hoskins missing with a wicked half-volley five minutes after the restart.

Reuben Reid, the substitute for Alessandra, made a bid to re-equalize in 61 minutes but was stopped by Clarke’s dive to his right.

He then denied Reid again in 65 minutes, making a superb reflex save at feet after the striker had wormed his way between Wright and Dunkley.

The captain wasn’t having one of his best games, but with the team already short on the back line, Kyle elected to try to motivate the man wearing his armband to get him to up the level of his play.

And for a time, it worked, even though Clarke v Reid Round Three was also needed to keep the score 2-1. A fine fingertip save denied the substitute striker in 71 minutes and it was then that Kyle finally went to his bench.

MacDonald, who had received a final warning from Atkinson after another clumsy challenge despite being on a yellow, had to come off, and he did, in favor of Meades. The other sacrifice was Hoban, which was disappointing because as the club’s leading goalscorer, more was expected from him. Hylton came on for him and Kyle trusted to luck to hold his back line together.

Dean Rittenberg went down on a hard challenge from Dunkley in 81 minutes and the defender was booked, but Atkinson evened things up 45 seconds later when Curtis Nelson sent Hylton flying on a run down the right.

Plymouth used its final substitution moments later and it was a bit of a headscratcher, as sixteen-year old midfielder Jake Miller came on for the influential Ollie Norburn. That was fine with Kyle, who now shifted his team to 4-2-3-1 to try to kill off the remaining minutes of the match.

On the counter, Maddison surged forward and his effort was blocked behind for a corner, which the on-loan midfielder quickly took. It went deep into the six-yard box, where it found the head of Johnny Mullins and into the back of the net.

A simple set piece had undone Argyle and a few minutes later, Kyle had the big win he craved.

It was the best run anyone at Oxford United could remember. And as the coach headed home to start the players on their days off, there was a sense of near-euphoria in the changing room.

The team was playing brilliantly.

Oxford United: Clarke: Mullins, Dunkley, Wright (captain), Skarz, Rose, MacDonald (Meades 73), Maddison (Bevans 88), O’Dowda, Hoskins, Hoban (Hylton 73). Unused subs: Ashdown, Ruffels, Ashby, Godden.

Plymouth Argyle 1 (Tyler Harvey 7)
Oxford United 3 (Hoskins 4, MacDonald 14, Mullins 86)
H/T: 1-2
A: 7,536, Home Park, Plymouth
Man of the Match: James Maddison, Oxford (MR 9.0)
Referee: Martin Atkinson

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Keep it up tenthreeleader. The depth that you are still going into is incredible! I'm excited for when you start on FM16!
Thank you, Smithy :)

“I’m not sure I can stand all this prosperity.”

Kyle couldn’t have been happier.

The coach ride home had been loud and fun. The festive period had gone perfectly, players were coming back off the injury lists, and he had options coming up in squad selection which would push the players who were already performing so well.

In just six league matches in charge, Kyle Cain’s Oxford had moved from 22nd place to joint 15th place, where they found themselves trailing on goal difference. A true mid-table position awaited, with plenty of season left to play.

They were very clearly the form team in League Two and had a series of matches coming up against three of the league’s bottom clubs. Cheltenham, 24th and last, would be next followed by Dag and Red, 23rd in the table. Exeter City would follow, another club really struggling.

The team had earned eighteen league points from eighteen, seven more than in seventeen matches under Appleby. The club’s point total had zoomed from eleven to twenty-nine in just six weeks.

And he was pleased at how the holiday party had gone with Stacy. She was still reluctant to join him in Oxford, though, and they were still estranged, but he finally saw light at the end of a tunnel that did not look like an oncoming train.

The news for some other managers, though, was not as good.

Bolton sacked former Celtic manager Neil Lennon after sagging to 21st place in the Championship, naming Johan Mjallby as the caretaker. The Trotters had had one win in their last six and had scored just twenty goals in 24 matches.

But, Kyle supposed, it could have been worse. Chris Hughton was shown the door at Brighton, which was last in the Championship and had won only once in their last eight matches, while not scoring a goal in their last three.

And yet, there were other concerns for Kyle. Just before the calendar year ended, he sat with Eales and went over the expiring contracts on the Oxford squad.

Many of them contained club option renewal clauses and that was a very good thing. While it allowed him to “kick the can” down the road by simply renewing players for another year, there were some who would take negotiation.

One was the club captain, Wright. On a decent run of form since Kyle’s arrival, the manager had already decided his skipper deserved a new deal, but the question was what he would want in exchange.

The answer was, quite surprisingly … less.

Through his agent, the captain proposed a £7,000 pay cut for himself, and Kyle was able to offer his defender some of that money back, save the club in net spending, and look good in the process.

Some of the players, though, simply had to be renewed.

Hoskins was one. He was too important to the club to be allowed to leave on a free. Rose, Sam Long and Bevans were three others, the last being a young player the club wanted to keep on the books.

Whing, though, was a much harder decision.

The player, listed as a backup on most of the depth charts, was making an awful lot of dosh for a player not regularly in the first team at £70,000 per annum. That was £25,000 per year more than his manager.

But he had been a virtual ever-present for Kyle until his injury and he, like so many of the others, had bought into what Kyle wanted tactically. He was useful. And at age 30, he more than likely still had a good year or two left of decent football before he started to decline.

So he was renewed as well. Less fortunate were other players on the first team.

Balmy, who couldn’t crack the first eleven, was one, and his salary would be good to jettison. Michael Collins was another – Kyle didn’t like to non-tender players who had been injured but from what he had seen at training, Collins wasn’t going to supplant those men already playing. Backup striker John Campbell and his salary in excess of £40,000 per annum was also non-tendered, but all players were told before the new year so they could begin looking for new clubs while still getting paid.

That was a luxury Kyle himself had not been afforded. He was determined to be a better boss than his former employers had been to him.

That was a part of what drove him now.

His desire for revenge on those who had wronged him was fueling a negative energy which he knew wasn’t healthy but which would keep him more than motivated for some time to come. But now, he had something else to work for.

He was a success, at least in the short term, for the first time in far too long. He liked the feeling.

Jenna did too. Her father seemed different around the house – still ridiculously hard-working, but now there seemed to be a purpose for it all.

New Year’s Eve came to the Cain household and for once, all seemed well.

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