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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
22 Nov 2014 – Oxford United (2-5-10, 22nd place) v AFC Wimbledon (4-5-8, 19th place)
Sky Bet League Two Match Day #18 – Kassam Stadium, Oxford

Kyle didn’t sleep a wink the night before the match. His nerves had gotten the better of him.

His return to management was enough to make sure of that, but the fact that defeat and a victory by Dagenham and Redbridge would put Oxford into the relegation places only made things worse.

It was Torquay all over again. He couldn’t help that, because he hadn’t anything to do with the club’s position prior to today, but it still ate at his mind.

He would do anything to help his new club avoid defeat. It was just that simple.

Finally, he tried to convince himself that the right mindset was essential, which is what he should have been doing from the beginning.

At about 2:30 in the morning, Kyle finally found some exhausted sleep, with cold sweat making him stick to the sheets. He woke up feeling clammy, which was surprising on a cold November morning.

The shower felt good, and so did finally packing Jenna into the car and driving to the ground. It was time to get things started.

# # #

Fazackerley, for his part, looked like he did this sort of thing every day.

He was waiting in Kyle’s office when the manager arrived, ready for the match in his Oxford track suit. His all-weather windbreaker was slung over one of the office chairs beside Kyle’s desk as the boss arrived to fill out his first official team sheet.

“Going to be a cold one today, Kyle,” Fazackerley said.

“Aye,” Kyle answered. “Not a day for the faint of heart.”

For his part, he was going to wear a touchline suit, which was a marked departure from how he had worked at Torquay. You only get one chance to make a first impression, he had thought, so he wore what the directors wore – a navy suitcoat with a white shirt, yellow and blue tie and dark pants.

He fished around the center desk drawer to see if there was a club lapel pin in there someplace, and happily, there was. Now he could feel “official”, and as he sat behind the desk he realized that while the center drawer contained a lapel pin, it didn’t contain anything he could use to fill out the team sheet.

He was caught out, but Fazackerley came to the rescue, reaching inside his track suit to pull out a ball-point pen.

“Here, Kyle, use mine,” he laughed. “There are a bunch of pens at the front desk. I’ll grab you a few.”

He began to write his first-ever Oxford XI, and as he wrote, a smile broke onto his face. Kyle Cain was back.

GK – Ashdown
DR – Mullins
DC – Whing
DC – Wright (captain)
DL – Skarz
MR – Meades
MC – O’ Dowda
MC – Maddison
ML – McDonald
ST – Hylton
ST – Hoban
Substitutes: Clarke, Dunkley, Bevans, Ruffels, Long, Balmy, Rose.

# # #
The 12,000-seat Kassam Stadium, known as The United Stadium by some members of the Supporters’ Trust and finished on only three of its four sides, was about one-third full for the match. Even that was a bit of a surprise given the performance of the club in recent weeks, but the playing of The Spinners’ Workin’ My Way Back to You during warm-ups was a nice message about intent nevertheless.

Kyle had played in the match that saw the Kassam Stadium’s record crowd – a 3-2 win for Leyton Orient before 12,343 on the last day of the 2005-06 season. That result saw Oxford relegated out of the Football League for the first time in nearly thirty years.

And now, one of those responsible for Oxford’s relegation was on the touchline about to manage the home team for the very first time. Funny game, football.

There were some in the crowd who remembered Kyle as a player for a competing club, and that meant a lukewarm reception from some parts of the assembled. That wasn’t optimal – Kyle wanted his players to get a good reception as part of its attempted, mid-season rebirth, and it wouldn’t hurt to have that good reception extended to the manager – but what he really wanted was a complete, well-played match.

That was his team-talk before kickoff.

“Don’t worry yourselves with talk of relegation and of negativity. This is the first day of the rest of your season. A new broom sweeps clean, as they say, and I’m the new broom. You are responsible for doing the sweeping. When you clean your house, the good things will come. One step at a time, gentlemen. That will get this job done.”

Oxford attacked the undeveloped West End of the stadium in the first half, electing to work toward the Oxford Mail stand in the second.

It took two minutes for the first bad thing to happen to Kyle’s new team, as Meades crumpled under a rugged challenge from Calum Kennedy, holding his shin and rocking from side to side. He could continue, but he was gimpy for a few moments while he found his feet again.

Oxford got a pair of corners just after the ten-minute mark. Both chances went begging but the team’s third corner, in sixteen minutes, generated the first good chance of the match. Maddison teed up Meades beautifully but the crocked midfielder blazed over from just outside the box, forcing the first emotional reaction of any kind from Kyle since the match had started.

That seemed to wake up the visitors, and Jake Reeves earned them a corner on twenty minutes. Things were finally beginning to hot up, as the Us tried to settle into their new manager’s preferred style.

The crowd might not have liked the idea of Kyle Cain as their manager, but they seemed to like the way his team was playing. The faithful started to warm up nicely, right along with the play, and gave a loud roar of approval at Mullins’ crunching but entirely legal tackle on Dons’ Jake Mills, which perhaps removed a bit of the sting from Meades’ earlier crocking.

The match appeared poised, as they say, and after the half hour a breakthrough came. Mullins played a ball forward that was overcooked but fortunately, defender Jack Smith turned the header into a total hash, the ball bouncing for O’Dowda down the wing.

He was onto the ball in a flash and his cross for Danny Hylton found first the support striker’s forehead and then the back of the Wimbledon goal for the club’s first goal under Kyle’s charge.

That ignited the crowd nicely and the remainder of the half saw a resurgent Wimbledon trying to find an equalizer only to be denied by Ashdown’s fine work in goal.

Oxford got to halftime ahead at the break in the league for the first time since 20th September and leading a league match at all for only the second time in that same span.

So it wasn’t surprising to see the players in a really good mood – which Kyle wasn’t about to do anything to change. Even this was progress, when the club had gone so long without a league win.

He looked around the changing room and saw players laughing and smiling. He hadn’t seen much of that over the last two months of the season at Torquay and it gave him a lift as well.

Fazackerley gave the halftime talk after Kyle’s general comments about how pleased the new man on the block was, and Kyle’s hope was that the good feeling would last long enough to get a point – or more – out of the afternoon’s exertions.

As the second half started, the club attacked the Oxford Mail Stand, which housed the most vocal home supporters. That was a good thing from the point of view of keeping the players’ heads in the match.

But as the highs came, the lows came too. Meades stretched too far for a lead ball in 52 minutes and you could hear him groan from the bench as his right groin muscle stretched, the player sliding to the ground in a heap.

That forced Kyle to his bench, with Sam Long replacing Meades, but as the low passed, another high arrived. One minute later, O’Dowda latched onto a very fine ball from Maddison, cut to the inside and finished powerfully past Wimbledon’s Iraqi keeper, Shwan Jalal, to put the Us ahead by two goals – for the second time all season in the league.

That got Kyle up and off the bench, yelling and shaking his fists. He was surprised at his emotion. He hadn’t been like that at Torquay, mainly because the results hadn’t really warranted it, but now he was jumping around like he himself had scored the goal.

Most of Kyle’s original eleven stayed the course in this one – as Wimbledon flailed away with increasing helplessness, he went to his bench not to strengthen the team but simply to allow fresh legs to take part in the match.

Soon it was over. And Oxford had won, snapping an eleven-match winless streak in the league.

This time, as the players left the pitch a happy bunch for the first time in far too long, the old music on the tannoy was a bit different. Kool and the Gang’s classic Celebration sent the players to the changing room very happy indeed.

Oxford United 2 (Hylton 32, O’Dowda 53)
AFC Wimbledon 0
H/T: 1-0
A – 4,153, Kassam Stadium, Oxford
Man of the Match: James Maddison, Oxford (MR 8.8)

# # #
I'm so happy for Kyle, he's deserved his break
Congrats on your story of the month win :D You deserve it! And hopefully Kyle can turn things around at Oxford
Thanks very much and thanks to everyone who reads this story and voted for it. Very happy to have broken through to SOTM! And Josh, I hope good things really do come to those who wait!

It had been a nearly perfect debut day.

Exeter City, the club two spots above Oxford in the table, crashed and burned at home, falling 3-0 to ten-man, and fourth-placed, Shrewsbury. That gained back three of the five points Oxford was in arrears to the club in 20th place. To Kyle, there was nothing like making up most of the ground at the first time of asking.

The club directly ahead of the Us, 21st-placed Southend, had coughed up a late lead in the 79th minute and settled for a 1-1 draw at Tranmere in a match they probably deserved to win.

Below them, 23rd placed Dag and Red had survived going down to ten men to earn a 1-1 draw with Carlisle and tail-end Cheltenham, the team’s next opponent in the league, had rallied to earn the same 1-1 draw at home to Wycombe.

Four of the bottom five clubs in the league had all played at home, and Kyle Cain’s Oxford was the only one that had managed to win.

But it wasn’t all positive. The word from the physios was that Meades was going to miss a month, and that made at least one loan signing more or less imperative.

Youth striker George Jeacock was up from the u-21s to sit on the bench for Wimbledon and that wouldn’t do either. The squad’s versatility meant that a small squad size wasn't necessarily devastating since many in the group could perform more than one task. However, they were now spread too thin. Bodies were needed.

One of those bodies was 23-year old striker Matt Godden, who was contracted to Ebbsfleet Town. In the Vanarama Conference South – two leagues below the Us. But it was an example of how picked through the bigger clubs were that Godden was listed by the scouts as the best player available for loan.

Godden had been loaned out seven times in the last five seasons – and Kyle made it eight right before the loan deadline. Despite scoring ten goals in 23 starts for Scunthorpe, Dartford and Tamworth the season before, Jamie Day saw him as surplus to requirements and let him go to Kyle for three months for a comparative song.

At fifty percent of a £9,000 wage contribution, even the cash-strapped Us could afford him. The book on the striker was that he had a fine nose for goal. He just couldn’t always find the goal, or remember the offside law when he got close to it.

Kyle’s idea was to have Godden be the substitute striker until Hoskins and Campbell were ready to return from injury, and at that financial contribution it wouldn’t be a huge loss to the club if he didn’t work out.

But the best reaction of all on that first day had come from Jenna.

Having watched the contest from the directors’ box as Eales’ personal guest, she waited patiently in the lounge area underneath the South Stand for her father to arrive from the changing room.

He had told the Oxford Mail that, in the main, he couldn’t ask for better from players in their first effort:

“It was a dream start. Wimbledon are not a bad side and they did pose a threat to us for large parts of the match. But my lads kept their bottle today and with a new manager in front of them, they rose to the occasion. I think all United fans can be happy with the effort these players put out today. Looking at them after the match, it’s hard to see the club that went two months without a victory in this league. Further efforts like this will see more points earned and an easing of the relegation worries of the club.”

As he left the changing room to pick up his daughter, Kyle was buried in a happy hug from the young lady.

Kyle smiled at her, and Jenna’s joy at finally seeing her father smiling was really a sight to behold.

“I told you that you could do this,” she said. “Dad, didn’t I tell you that you could do this?”

# # #
Wow. This is just outstanding. The level of detail you go into the backstory is brilliant! Please keep it up!
tenthreeleader's avatar Group tenthreeleader
8 yearsEdited
Thank you, Smithy. It's nice to have people appreciate the effort I put into writing. For me, doing research and back story is almost as much fun as playing the game. Almost :)

In a way, the next day was almost like a dream.

Kyle had just informed Ashdown, Maddison, Mullins and O’Dowda that among them, they made up 4/11ths of the League Two Team of the Week, but he had bigger fish to fry.

He was on the phone with Kristin Fox, a young publicist.

She worked for Manchester United Football Club, and she wanted a quote from Kyle about the special arrangement about to be announced between the clubs.

“Mr. Cain, if you’d be so kind, please tell us what it means to have Manchester United as a parent club for Oxford United,” she said, and for Kyle’s money – or the Glazers’, for that matter – it sounded great.

He tried to sound non-plussed, and he failed.

“Manchester United is arguably the biggest club in the world. I can’t imagine a footballing circumstance where partnership with them would not be in the interests of the vast majority of clubs in England. We hope to help United with blooding young players for their future even as we attempt to improve our own club in the process. Today is a very good day for Oxford United Football Club.”

He said a few other things that he didn’t quite recall as well, but he was over the moon at the thought of having any sort of access to United’s never-ending pipeline of young talent – especially with United picking up the salary tab.

The announcement later that day was a joint one, but United controlled distribution, as was fitting for a club of their size. Louis van Gaal couldn’t be bothered for comment, of course, but there were numerous functionaries who were willing to be quoted for the record, including Ed Woodward, which everyone at Oxford thought was great. Of course, Eales had his say too, in the natural order of things.

Unfortunately for Kyle, though, the loan deadline had passed and as such he couldn’t take advantage of his good fortune until January – or more likely, the close season since most of the players who could have really helped were already out on loan.

But still, access to United’s youth setup, an annual contribution from the Red Devils of £80k and hosting a friendly between the clubs and keeping the proceeds – well, that was a hat trick of an entirely different type.

To put it in perspective, the £80,000 annual fee would cover about seven percent of the club’s wage bill for the entire season. The financial gulf between the Premier League and League Two was so large as to make the comparison really worth noting.

Oxford would be United’s fifth affiliated club, joining Royal Antwerp, Desportivo Brazil, Fluminense and FC Twente, and of course it was the only one in England, which frankly shocked Kyle to learn.

But the money was good, the loan players would hopefully be good, and the rest would be history in time, which would, as always, tell all.

# # #
That will be great for the club! Extra money is always excellent
I was quite surprised when United showed up on the list of potential parent clubs. Not exactly a difficult decision .... :)

29 November 2014 – Cheltenham (1-5-12, 24th place) v Oxford United (3-5-10, 22nd place)
Sky Bet League Two Match Day #19 -- Whaddon Road, Cheltenham

The first away test for Kyle Cain’s Oxford came the next weekend and as far as tests went, on paper it couldn’t have been easier.

Only Dag and Red and Cheltenham had fewer league victories than Oxford’s three, so if they had to head out on their travels under their new boss, the Robins’ Whaddon Road was the ideal League Two destination point. Nick Barmby’s new club had a solitary win to its credit – over Dag and Red – to show for 18 matches played.

Kyle wanted to see a few different players in this match – starting in goal, where Clarke needed a chance to prove himself. An ever-present for the last five seasons, he had fallen behind Ashdown in the pecking order under Appleby. And though he might wind up second choice again, he deserved the chance to impress the new boss.

At the back, Dunkley replaced Whing in the center of the back line but that was the only change from the Wimbledon match. That was because Whing had moved to midfield to replace the injured Meades, while the new loanee, Godden, made the substitutes’ bench.

Those were the only changes, as Kyle never really believed in the idea of making mass changes to a winning eleven and his squad wasn’t big enough to ring in the changes in any event.

It took less than two minutes for Kyle to be off the bench in elation, as Hoban finished powerfully from a lovely little cross by Mullins, who had gotten almost to the byline before unleashing a tremendous ball to the middle.

Unfortunately, the assistant on that side had, correctly, flagged Hoban for offside. That put a damper on things, but at least notice had been served of malicious intent on the part of the visitors.

The start of the match showed an Oxford side that was clearly for it, and a Cheltenham side which clearly was not.

It showed from the beginning, even though Hoban was offside. He ghosted easily between central defenders Troy Brown and Matt Taylor but had been denied by the flag.

Seven minutes later, though, he wasn’t denied by anyone. The play started innocently enough as Dunkley’s long ball toward the right was cut out by defender John Nutter on the left.

Looking for distribution options, Nutter turned to his left looking for a midfielder, and couldn’t find one. He looked to his right, looking for Taylor, and saw Hoban had ghosted between them. He looked for keeper Harry Reynolds, but by then it was too late.

Hoban caught Nutter in possession and stole the ball inside the Cheltenham area. Instantly, the ball was by Reynolds to his short side, the keeper’s left, and Oxford led away from home.

The gasps of horror from the home fans at two ridiculous defensive errors committed within ten minutes were music to Kyle’s ears.

Hoban liked them too, because six minutes later the Robins made an error every bit as bad. Skarz had a throw deep in the Cheltenham end and found the unmarked Whing after a short throw. The midfielder turned and found an unmarked O’Dowda inside the Robins area. While the defense rushed to O’Dowda, Hoban made another run into space and got the ball right next to the penalty spot with Taylor desperately trying to close.

It was too easy. It was also 2-0 within sixteen minutes.

Obviously, Kyle loved the start. How could he not? His team was dominating possession and chances and already had two goals in the bank.

Hoban was supercharged. Eight minutes later, he was making trouble again.

It was the simplest of chances. Maddison started this one, flicking the ball up the middle for the run of Hylton as he was closed by a defender. Hylton held up the ball neatly and then slipped a backheel pass to his right for Hoban, who had made a great diagonal run to leave the unfortunate Taylor for dead.

For the third time in a glorious fourteen-minute span, Hoban beat Reynolds to his near post, which drove Barmby to distraction and which put Kyle over the moon. Three goals to the good within half an hour!

The Us on the park were pretty satisfied with themselves too – and that was what Kyle had to guard against.

Right away, he was up and off the bench when he saw signs of complacency. Oxford were a world apart from their hosts in quality and the first half hour had showed it.

It was odd; the Robins being down three goals and for all practical purposes, being doomed, brought out better play from them. Oxford’s dominance faded and now it was the home team carving out decent chances, but Clarke in goal and a misfiring home strike force kept the score three-nil to United at the break.

Kyle saw a very happy group of players, but a group that needed to be reined in.

Yet he also saw a group that needed confidence, and which had equaled its season high goal tally already. He had a choice to make; put their feet on the ground and ruin the moment, or praise them and spend the second half on the touchline due to the inevitable self-satisfaction which would follow from his players.

This was a decision he never seemed to get right at Torquay, and as he stood to give his team talk, he thought it through one last time. Then he finally spoke.

“That was bloody marvelous,” he told them. “More of the same, please.”

It wasn’t surprising, therefore, that more of the same didn’t come. That said, Oxford had things well in hand and the momentary disappointment of not hanging more goals on their tail-end opposition was more than balanced by a tight defense and a very good idea of how to hold the home team down.

Mullins, who had taken a hard knock late in the first half, came off at the break in favor of Bevans, and it was thirteen minutes from time before Kyle moved again. This was a double substitution, with Whing coming off for Ashby and Godden making his debut for Hylton.

But with the match winding down, a disappointing moment opened Kyle’s eyes right as the assistant signaled for two minutes of added time.

Taylor, who had had an awful time in the first half, cleared Cheltenham’s lines with an anywhere-will-do clearance with his right foot – but which wound up going sixty yards and finding the run of substitute Eliot Richards deep in the Us defensive third. His first touch was useful, a cross right into the six-yard box – where Dunkley got caught ball-watching.

Another substitute, striker Mathieu Manset, ran onto the cross behind the statuesque Dunkley and volleyed past a startled Clarke, who hadn’t thought to come out to collect the cross. It was a consolation goal for a soundly-beaten home team, but it gave Kyle something to chew on as the team finished the match and prepared for an FA Cup date the following weekend.

Match Summary: Clarke: Mullins (Bevans 45), Dunkley, Wright (captain), Skarz, Whing (Ashby 77), McDonald, Maddison, O’Dowda, Hylton (Godden 77), Hoban. Unused subs: Ashdown, Ruffels, Rose, Balmy.

Cheltenham 1 (Mathieu Manset 90)
Oxford United 3 (Patrick Hoban 10, 16, 24)
H/T: 0-3
A – 4,073, Wheddon Road, Cheltenham
Man of the Match: Patrick Hoban, Oxford (MR 9.5)

# # #
There was more good news, as Exeter City had fallen 3-1 at Accrington, moving the Us up a spot in the table to 21st place.

There was no hope of making up enough ground to entertain promotion hopes or any such nonsense, but consecutive victories had opened up a seven-point gap over Dag and Red in the relegation fight – and judging by the expression on Eales’ face at training the following Monday, the points were most welcome.

Now, though, there was a much more difficult challenge. Fourth-placed Shrewsbury awaited in a Second Round FA Cup tie at Greenhous Meadow with a coveted spot in the Third Round – and a potentially lucrative tie against Premiership opposition – waiting in the wings.

This was an important match but as importantly, it would give Kyle a chance to see just how far his team had come in the preceding two matches.

Shrewsbury were on a three-match win streak with victories over Accrington, Exeter and Burton to credit their highly credible playoff challenge. That said, their win skein still placed them nine points behind Portsmouth, with Pompey four points clear of second-placed Plymouth Argyle.

There would be a difficult test ahead, without question. But Kyle wanted to see how his players would react.

The reaction would be even more testing when Kyle learned that Maddison would be unable to play given the terms of his loan from Coventry. That opened a giant hole in the center of midfield which he hoped Danny Rose would be able to fill.

As December 1 arrived, it was a unique day for Wycombe Wanderers, the form team in League Two. Gareth Ainsworth’s men had won six of their last eight in the league to climb to fifth place, and were richly rewarded for that form.

Ainsworth won the manager’s award; teammates Marcus Bean, Peter Murphy and Shamir Fenelon finished 1-2-3 in the Player of the Month voting; Fenelon, Aaron Pierre and Alfie Mawson finished 1-2-3 in Young Player of the Month voting; and Murphy’s strike against Hartlepool on the 29th won the Goal of the Month. Not a bad month to be a Chairboy.

It was also a rough day to be a manager outside of London. Swansea’s Garry Monk, Southampton’s Ronald Koeman and Coventry’s Stephen Pressley all got their P45s on the same day. Kyle wondered if any of them were as devastated as he had been.

But with two wins on the spin to start his Oxford career and the board’s goal for the competition already reached, he felt he could make a few changes to see what his lads were really made of.

# # #
Stacy was getting into a good groove at her office.

Now a full-fledged librarian after a quick promotion, she felt she was beginning to thrive. She really enjoyed people and she was starting to really enjoy her work.

She wore her curly brunette hair in a pony tail slung forward over her right shoulder. It was perhaps not the traditional ‘librarian’ look, but Boyd had commented positively on it the first time she had worn it that way and she wanted to see what he’d say when he saw it again.

She looked calm, confident and self-assured. And as she helped patrons at the desk she felt self-reliant. It had been a long time since she had felt that way.

Kyle, for his part, had done his best. It was just not very good. He had never advanced past his boyhood club in the game and had been dire in his first try at club management. Stacy was ready to show that she could shine in a way her husband had never done.

Her clothes, while arguably a bit on the dated side, flattered her shape and even hid the slight baby bump that was beginning to show along her abdomen. Her daily bouts with morning sickness were starting to become a thing of the past and were it not for the fact that the baby was Kyle’s she might have otherwise enjoyed more about being a mother by surprise.

She hadn’t thought much about him in recent days. So he was at Oxford and had managed a couple of wins. She really couldn’t hold that against him – success in football, after all, meant more than success at home to him – so in that regard she was happy. He was getting what he really wanted, which was three points each weekend instead of a happy wife and family.

Stacy helped a patron check out a fairly decent-sized stack of books, working the checkout computer with increasing skill. That pleased her as well. She had been out of work for much of Kyle’s playing career because she hadn’t needed to work, and now that she was back on the job, she felt free.

She felt happy.

As the patron left, Boyd stepped out of his office and smiled at her.

“I like your hair, Stacy,” he said as he crossed behind her to his mailbox, which was stuffed full of memos, correspondence and other items he hadn’t quite had the time to get to during his day.

“Why, thank you, Boyd,” Stacy said, turning to face him. As she did, her blouse pulled open in just the right way, and her boss tried and failed to keep his eyes high.

“Well … yes … you’re welcome,” he said, trying not to make it obvious he’d been staring.

He knew if he said or did the wrong thing, he could face some serious issues. He didn’t want serious issues.

But when it came to Stacy Cain, Boyd Stokes thought a bit of fun might not be the worst thing in the world. As long as it wasn’t ‘serious’.

# # #
“So what’s this I’m supposed to do about the team holiday party?”

Kyle read a memorandum from Fazackerley about plans for an event at the Spice Lounge, on the north end of the city. It was about as far from the club offices as you could get and still have both locations be in Oxford, located near the northern end of the bypass road which ringed the old city.

Yet, it was supposed to have great Indian food, and it was hoped that by the time Christmas rolled around, Kyle Cain’s management would make the festive period a lot more festive in actuality.

“You’re supposed to run that party, Kyle,” Fazackerley finally said with a smile.

“The hell you say.”

“It’s traditional,” the man listed on the club website as Assistant Head Coach said. “There’s nothing to it, really. Have a couple of players do the heavy lifting as far as making arrangements. Then you run the show, there are a few gag awards, and then everyone takes a cab home.”

As Kyle well knew, holiday parties could be trouble. Big trouble, in fact. He had a flashback that he didn’t like.

Charlotte Weber. What a girl. What a problem.

She had followed Kyle’s Orient team on the road for over a year, and whenever there was time, they would find a way to be together. At first it seemed friendly enough but Kyle knew full well he was violating both team policy and another type of policy as well.

And it was at a holiday party where Charlotte had exposed their relationship.

Her good-night tonsillectomy, delivered with Stacy standing to Kyle’s immediate right, had left little doubt as to what was going on. He had been very stupid. He knew it. He didn’t even know how she had gotten into the families-only event in the first place – which was the other reason he had been so surprised that night – and as a result, everything was out in the open.

And that had changed everything.

Things with Stacy hadn’t gone well for some time prior to that, but Kyle couldn’t put it down to Charlotte’s presence. Stacy said it had to do with Kyle being too absorbed with his football.

The problem was, he couldn’t deny it. She had been right. At that point, staying in the game meant everything to him. Only Jenna had a chance of getting close to him, until Charlotte appealed to his machismo as a player. Stacy hadn’t done that since he was a schoolboy who had just agreed terms with his boyhood club. She seemed to love him quite a bit back then.

Yet, Kyle had been wrong. Flat-out, straight-up wrong. He had grievously hurt people he cared about, and was suspended for violating team rules in the process – which meant he nearly lost his football as well.

And now, in a position of responsibility, here he was being asked to relive it all again. He had never attended another holiday party while an active player and if he weren’t manager of Oxford United, he wouldn’t have attended this one either.

But in this ethos, he had to run the show. He couldn’t imagine any idea more painful. He didn’t know where his estranged wife lived, had no particular desire to find out, and a reminder of the single biggest reason for their estrangement now stared Kyle straight in the face. Happy Christmas, Kyle Cain.

“I’ve got issues with traditions like these,” he finally said, moving the memo to the bottom of his mail pile. “I want as little as possible to do with them.”

# # #
6 December 2014 – Shrewsbury Town (4th place League Two) v Oxford United (21st place League Two)
FA Cup Second Round – Greenhous Meadow, Shrewsbury

So this was what a challenge looked like.

Nobody fancied Kyle’s side to claim victory against such higher-placed opposition, but as the phrase went, “you never know until you try”.

Kyle’s words to the team before the match were perfunctory and honest. He said what everyone felt – that despite momentum being on their side, they weren’t going to be favored to advance. So they might as well make the best of it.

Rose got the start in place of Maddison in the engine room part of the midfield, and Kyle was curious to see how that would come off. He also gave loanee Godden his first start for Oxford in place of Hylton alongside Hoban, who would hopefully keep his form.

As expected, from the beginning of the match the home team took charge. Bobby Grant had the ball past Ashdown three minutes into the match but was whistled for offside, and that helped get the team’s feet back on the ground.

But nothing could stop David Norris a few minutes later. The Shrewsbury midfielder picked up a bounding loose ball a full five yards outside the Oxford area and hit a tremendous drive into the top left corner of Ashdown’s goal. It was unstoppable, it was magnificent and it drove Shrewsbury into a lead that was richly deserved.

As the smallish home crowd celebrated, Kyle sat back on the bench. There was no point in getting upset. Sometimes the other guy just makes a great play.

But if Shrewsbury had the early going all to themselves, Kyle was thrilled at how his team responded.

Five minutes after the opener, Oxford earned a corner to the right of the Shrewsbury goal. Mullins’ effort was short, and O’Dowda gained possession inside the area. He squared, and the ball seemed to disappear into a mob of players in front of the goal.

Moments later, it was central defender Andy Whing, forward to try to disrupt the defense on the set piece, who came out with the ball at his feet, moving to his left. He had an open side to shoot at and he didn’t miss, equalizing the match at 1-1.

Oxford really took off after that, winning a free kick twenty-five yards out from goal a minute after Whing’s goal. Alex MacDonald took it, and blasted a perfectly-taken free kick over the wall and beyond the reach of the diving Jayson Leutwiler to put United ahead 2-1.

That spurred general celebration on the bench. Though against the general run of play, Oxford still led away, and Kyle was very impressed with the spirit his team was showing.

Expecting the inevitable Shrewsbury counterattack, Kyle tried to settle his team down, and it worked. That is, until first half injury time, when Connor Goldson shook loose from a group of players that included the unfortunate MacDonald, who had attempted to cut out a cross from David Norris and failed. Goldson toe-poked past Ashdown to make the score 2-2 right as the half rolled into added time.

As upset as Kyle was over conceding in the last minute, he couldn’t be too upset with the half his men had played. They were missing key players and were still more than in the match.

He changed his tack to his players during the halftime team talk. “This is poised for you, men,” he said, his blood up and pacing back and forth excitedly across the front of the changing room. “You can do this. If you get the next one I like us to win this bloody thing. Who wants to be the one to get it?”

With that, he sent his players back onto the pitch and tried to think through his tactical options – which were few and far between.

He had five players out injured, Maddison ineligible and two seventeen-year-olds – Jeacock and defender Cian McCormack – up from the u-21s to give him a full bench. He wanted to play 4-2-3-1 but as he looked down the bench he saw he only had one player he could trust to play as a holding midfielder, and he was already out there.

That left Kyle’s Us as rigid as a tent pole tactically. He was going to have to watch his team sort things out in the form of Mullins.

But now things slowed down a bit as the teams probed more carefully for an opening after the hell-for-leather first half. Ashdown settled down a bit in goal and as the match ticked past the hour, Kyle started thinking about the possibility of having to play added time with such a small squad. It wasn’t appetizing.

On 65 minutes, Oxford’s defense worked the offside trap perfectly, catching Shrewsbury’s Bobby Grant unaware when defender Daniel Knight-Percival’s punt upfield caught him a full three yards offside. Yet he kept going, to Ashdown’s screams of offside, and though the keeper stopped Grant, he couldn’t hold the rebound, which James Collins poked home.

And the damn flag stayed down.

Like a jack-in-the-box, Kyle was up off the bench and screaming at the fourth official. There was no doubt. Grant had been absolutely, unquestionably, blind-man-could-see-it offside and yet Shrewsbury led.

While Kyle’s defenders protested, Shrewsbury stole the ball after the kickoff and moved down the right. Cameron Gayle got to the byline and crossed and again, Collins finished, heading home for a devastating double-strike that had the home team ahead 4-2.

If the first goal had made the Us angry, the second made them incensed. It made Kyle especially angry, as the officials were his worry, not his players’. They hadn’t gotten Collins marked and the result was a two-goal deficit away from home.

Angrily, Kyle turned to his substitutes in their warm-ups, grabbing Hylton by the shirt collar with one hand and Josh Ashby by the shirt collar with the other.

Not only had they conceded twice in 90 seconds, Mullins had managed to get himself crocked in the process and had to come off. Now Oxford had a more attacking shape, with Ashby replacing Mullins and Hylton replacing Godden, who had reminded the world why he was a Conference striker on loan at a club two leagues up.

Kyle threw his players forward in an effort to get back into the match. Chances flowed freely – corners, set pieces, buildups – but everything died in the application, either wide of the goal or safely into the arms of keeper Leutwiler. The Third Round dream was dying quickly.

The referee signaled for two minutes of added time – and then Rose, on a set piece deep in the Shrewsbury end, found an unmarked Ashby right on the top of the eighteen-yard box, and his screamer beat Leutwiler to his left to give Oxford a ray of hope.

Ashby grabbed the ball he had used to score his first goal for the club and sprinted back to the center circle for the kickoff. And the Us got the ball back, slashing back deep into the Shrewsbury half, with Skarz’s cross headed behind for a corner as the match moved into its 92nd and final minute.

Moving quickly, Bevans went to take it and whipped a perfect ball deep into the box. Right there was a gloriously unmarked and loudly screaming Hoban.

He headed over. That was it.

Kyle stood up, hands interlaced over the top of his head in shock. He went to shake hands with Micky Mellon, who looked like he had just swallowed a whole grapefruit, and looked out to see his players remonstrating with referee Jeremy Simpson and his assistants to no avail.

He headed onto the pitch and shooed his players away.

“Now, now,” he said, pushing first Dunkley and then Whing away from the officials. “These three old blind guys will have a hard time finding the tunnel if you stand in their way. Let’s go home.”

Oxford United: Ashdown: Bevans, Whing, Wright (captain, Dunkley 81), Skarz, MacDonald, Mullins (Ashby 66), Rose, O’Dowda, Godden (Hylton 66), Hoban. Unused subs: Clarke, McCormack, Balmy, Jeacock.

Shrewsbury Town 4 (David Norris 16, Connor Goldson 45, James Collins 64, 65)
Oxford United 3 (Andy Whing 21, Alex MacDonald 22, Josh Ashby 90+1)
H/T: 2-2
A – 3,515, Greenhous Meadow, Shrewsbury
Man of the Match – James Collins, Shrewsbury (MR 8.8)

# # #
Kyle’s words to the Mail were clear and concise.

“On their third goal, Grant was unquestionably offside. I’m damned if I know how professional officials miss that call. And since it was the third goal of a match we lost 4-3, I happen to think that mistake played a pretty significant part in the outcome. I know nobody expected us to win today but I’m gutted for my lads and I’m damn proud of them for what they did. They deserved a better fate. I’ll be looking forward to the day when these calls even out, as they say.”

Referee Simpson had spent the majority of his last ten matches taking charge of u-18 sides. That said, Kyle couldn’t begrudge Shrewsbury two of their goals. The fourth one had come while his side was asleep at the switch and that was something he could, and would have to, deal with.

What also bothered him was losing. That had obviously happened too often at Torquay, and Kyle wanted the scalp of a club above his in the table.

Perhaps a bit too much. He took the loss hard, though he tried not to show it in front of the players.

It was that whole “failure” thing. He was good at feeling the emotion and not so good at avoiding it.

That said, the gratifying lack of correspondence from the FA the day after his published comments showed that his complaint about Mr. Simpson (who was already being referred to as ‘Homer’ by the lads at training) wasn’t groundless.

What was a real concern, though, was the pending visit of Bury, with the Shakers looking for a new manager. After the weekend, they had sacked David Flitcroft and named assistant manager Alan Knight as caretaker. Kyle knew full well that clubs who have just sacked their manager often start stronger in the interim – as evidenced by Torquay running third in the Vanarama Conference after having sacked him – and he was going to be careful.

Dover (Chris Kinnear) and Bristol Rovers (Darrell Clarke) also sacked their bosses on the FA Cup weekend, which is a good time for clubs not in the competition to make moves since they have the week off.

Kyle hoped he wouldn’t be next when the Third Round was played, but knew full well that victory over Bury would nearly double the club’s point total for the season in just the three matches since he took over.

Provided they won, of course.

# # #
Kyle was ready for some good news during the runup to the Bury match. Head Physio Andy Lord nearly gave it to him.

Meades, who had missed time with a groin strain, was due back during the week and Kyle was seriously considering putting him straight back on the bench due to the other injuries still affecting the senior squad.

Striker Will Hoskins, desperately missed with a sprained ankle, was nearly ready to return to training but would need another week. Midfielder Michael Collins still needed two weeks to fully recover from a partial hamstring tear. Ruffels still needed a few days for his gashed leg to allow him to start running again and reserve forward John Campbell was two weeks away from returning after his ankle ligament strain.

Getting those players back would be like getting half a team for free, Kyle knew. At the moment he had very little flexibility in the senior squad and that made his team predictable. There was also very little competition for places, something else which hurt the team. If a player didn’t necessarily have to train well to earn a place, that wasn’t good.

The other key issue of the week was convincing Coventry to extend Maddison’s loan until the end of the season.

One thing Appleby had done well was build a team around players contracted to Oxford United. He had also been smart enough to loan Maddison, who Kyle already saw changed the team in midfield. Although only seventeen, the boy had a good head on his shoulders. He didn’t necessarily like to train, and had actually complained to Fazackerley about it, but dislike of hard training wasn’t unusual among teenagers.

And Oxford was a completely different team when he was pulling the strings, so Kyle wanted to keep him around. Rose wasn’t a horrible player, but he was a definite second choice to the Sky Blue loanee.

So as Kyle looked toward January and the possibility of reinforcement, he saw a club well-suited to the addition of loan players. He was thinking of adding a holding midfielder, another defender and another midfielder – and once the injured strikers returned to the fold, he felt Oxford would be in good shape for the stretch run.

Kyle was bound and determined to get the club to forty points and the relative guarantee of safety as part of that stretch run.

That would require twenty-three points from twenty-seven matches. With no cup competitions to worry about, and the club sitting on seventeen points in the table, Kyle thought that much was doable.

Of course, the board wanted more, such as a mid-table finish. The season before, 12th place needed 59 points and goal difference to attain.

Earning forty-two points from twenty-seven matches would be a whole different kettle of fish. And if that was what his job depended on, well, he could already feel the pressure building.

Yet, Kyle hoped he would handle the inevitable failures differently this time. As he sat at his desk, arranging knickknacks and placing a picture of him with Jenna at a far corner, he looked over to the television set mounted on the wall to his right. On the wall next to the screen, he had placed a poster. It read:

“Whatever doesn’t kill me had better start running.”

# # #

You are reading "[FM15] Raising Cain".

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