Coming through the arrivals gate Harper was struck by how busy the small airport was. Bristol Airport wasn’t the showiest but it certainly had some footfall. He glanced around to orient himself and to catch his breath. It had all happened so quickly; first the phone call with the executive assistant Maggie, then one with his agent Gary and then Maggie again. He spoke only briefly to his wife to gauge her thoughts and then it was all in motion. Before he knew it a flight was booked and he was on his way to the airport.
He checked the digital clock on the wall and then looked for a sign to tell him where to look for the hire car collection. Once he was sure which way to go he logged the direction in his mind and then made his way into the W H Smiths to pick up a drink and perhaps something to eat. From the chiller he grabbed a bottle of juice – blood orange and grapefruit – along with a bottle of water, next he picked up a peri peri chicken salad wrap and joined the queue.
As he waited in the queue of holiday makers buying drinks and lottery tickets he let his eyes drift across the newspapers. The various national papers were full of talk of Brexit and the potential disruption it might bring, along with little bits of gossip and fluff – soft news for a bland Monday morning. One newspaper however, The Non-League Paper down on the bottom shelf, caught his attention; or at least the headline did – Robbery at Twerton Park the Final Straw! The name struck a chord with Harper and, on a whim, he picked it up.
Before he could do more than glance at the front page the queue moved on and he was stood before the girl behind the counter. He smiled at her through his beard; nothing, not even a reaction – she merely picked up and scanned the items one by one. Time was a smile from him once could have opened doors, or at the very least pushed them ajar. Those days were long gone, the grizzled beard, scarred cheek and travel worn face had put paid to that.
He paid for the four items on his card and then headed down the concourse to collect the hire-car, a silver Toyota Avensis which smelled of pastry, old cigarettes and desperate attempts to clean the interior. His day bag Harper deposited onto the passenger seat along with the newspaper while he put the water bottle into the cup holder. The fruit juice he opened and, while taking a long and much needed pull on it, he picked up the paper and began on the article.
Twerton Park was the scene of a robbery Saturday afternoon as Bath City were soundly beaten 3 – 1 thanks to two own goals and woeful defending. The result proved to be the final straw for the manager as the board confirmed less than an hour after full time that he’d been removed from his position…
Harper finished the orange juice and dropped the bottle onto the seat by the bag until he found a bin. Below the headline was a large picture, a dejected man in a black suit with his head in his hands, his little bald pat peeking out from above his fingertips. The figure in the photo was a picture of dejection and defeat. Harper picked up the wrap, opened the container and took a bite. It was peppery but too cold and the wrap itself felt slightly damp. Such was his life now, overpriced sandwiches and cheap hire-cars. He skimmed the article and then a little lower down continued to read,
… chairman Paul Williams said, through his assistant Maggie Heaton, “We had no alternative, the results have been poor all season and in truth this decision would likely have come regardless of the result. We’ve a full off season now to get the right man in charge and the right direction for the club – we’ve big hopes to bring football to a rugby town and we’ve already identified the right man for the job!”
He scanned up through the article to the name of the author, Ava Foster, filing the name away for future reference and started up the car. Into his phone he punched the address he’d been emailed and waited for the software to plot a map to his destination. Forty minutes later Harper Tanner, youth coach with Hibernian of Edinburgh pulled into the car park of Twerton Park, home of Bath City FC – currently languishing in the bottom half of the Conference South at the end of a disastrous season in which relegation was avoided by a single point.
The car park such as it was doubled as the staff car park for the Co-Op and Post office adjacent to the ground. As Harper got out of the car and stretched his legs he took in the corrugated iron stand, painted a fetchingly grim green. The cattle sheds as his mind immediately christened them looked out over a pitch surrounded on two sides by terraces, the remaining side was what could generously be described as a seated stand.
Harper fastened up his jacket and removed the sunglasses from his face. He wasn’t a handsome man by traditional standards – thirty one years old and retired from the professional game for a little over two seasons following a career ending injury he’d done his best to eat right and stay in shape. He face was weather worn, a ruddy beard covered the lower half of his face and his hair was a little longer than would be considered normal. He was however articulate and confident, carried himself with an easy air despite the slight limp, and his broad shoulders and powerful frame betrayed his past as a physical rather than technical player. His career hadn’t been storied but he liked to think he’d made a serviceable footballer. Strong in the air and tough tackling, he enjoyed the odd set piece and had managed two seasons in the SPL, the mainstay of his career however being reserved for the lower echelons of Scottish football.
The injury when it happened was innocuous enough, jumping for a corner he’d made the clearance and then when he landed his right leg had buckled under him. Harper didn’t know what to make of it, save that he was in unbelievable pain – shooting from his calf up to his thigh. He’d tried to stand with the help of his keeper. He’d tried to put weight on it but he couldn’t. The stretcher when it arrived couldn’t come soon enough. At the age of twenty eight he’d had his brush with his dreams but they’d fallen through. Twenty three games in the SPL and a single goal, scored against a woeful Kilmarnock team on a dreary Sunday afternoon in November. Not much to show for a career. He hadn’t realised as they carried him off that his career was over, or that his next one was already on the horizon. All he knew was that he felt like shit, he was in more pain than he’d ever thought possible and that Victoria Park was a miserable place to be. To make matters worse they lost the game, two one to Ross County – that fairly summed up his career to be honest.
Harper pulled the phone from his pocket and scrolled through the messages before clicking a few times for a dial tone. When the voice answered it was warm and rich, “Hello, Maggie Heaton speaking.”
“Hi Maggie, its Harper Tanner – I’ve just pulled into the car park. I can’t see an office, is it at the other side?” His accent betrayed a hint of his Irish heritage and more than a small smidgen of southern Scottish – the last ten years in Midlothian had certainly left an impression on his speech.
The other end of the line was quiet for a second or two.
“We’re just around the back of Charlie’s – the bar, should be directly in front of you? I’ll come around.”
The phone went dead at Harper’s ear and within moments a bubbly lady, perhaps mid fifties came around the corner. She was short with tightly cropped hair and a pair of glasses on a chain hung around her neck. The skirt she wore was a dark blue, bedecked with florals and on each arm was a collection of bangles and bracelets. As she waved and hurried across to him he mused that she wouldn’t have looked out of place at the Best Exotic Marigold. Or at Glastonbury.
They shook hands and exchanged pleasantries in the sunshine and then made their way through, past the black building that comprised the bar and into a small structure that served as the offices and admin facilities of the little non-league club.
“Mr Tanner – welcome, welcome! Come on in, get that jacket off! Maggie, coffee for me and for Harper..?”
“Er, the same – white no sugar please.”
The voice belonged to a man of ample frame behind a thin, cheap desk festooned with various papers and knickknacks. Next to the computer and facing out into the small room was a wooden sign reading Chairman in front of which someone had bluetacked “Needs a…”
Paul Williams had been chairman only briefly, since the club reverted to community ownership. He had rapidly earned a reputation for straight talking and a passion to develop the club into a community hub, a legacy for the town to be proud of.
“So Harper,” he began as the mugs of coffee arrived. “last year was a shambles, next year will be better. We’ve a little squirrelled away, we’re free of debt and we’re planning to invest in youth – make this team something to believe in. I’ve seen what you’ve done with the kids in Edinburgh with Hibs, that academy team there is playing some exciting football.”
He paused and took a swig of his coffee. Harper did the same, it was instant and not of an amazing quality but it was strong and hot. A biscuit, he thought, would have gone down a treat.
“I’m not going to piss about here Harper, we need a manager – I need a manager – and I know who I want; I want you. So, how about it; fancy bringing football to a rugby town?”
The decision hadn’t been as hard to make as he’d expected when first laying eyes on the ground. He’d finished the coffee while Paul went through his plans for the future and where the club wanted to be in the next three, five and ten years. Harper had liked what he’d heard.
In the first three years they planned to invest in the academy, develop youngsters so that they could offer something back to the community as well as developing a community partnership scheme to help the local area flourish. They’d targeted promotion in the second season up to the Conference National – the top tier of English Amateur Football – followed by a season of consolidation before a push on in year four. For a team that had only avoided relegation by the skin of their teeth that was a bold statement.
In the first five the primary goal was to achieve success with the academy and develop the training facilities alongside sourcing a series of affiliate clubs in the lower reaches to help blood those developing young players. During the fifth season they were targeting a promotion run. Two promotions in five seasons was an ambitious timescale but Harper didn’t think it unfeasible; if anything it made him eager to start on the task.
The ten year plan made for interesting discussion. By the tenth season the community group under Paul Williams wanted to have Bath City challenging for promotion to the Championship, with a well developed academy structure feeding young products from Somerset, Wiltshire and Dorset directly into the first team. The aim was a financially sound platform from which the club could further grow and develop, achievable steps year on year built on a foundation of “a certain way of playing”. Kids would come through the youth ranks playing Team Bath Football. They’d go through the youth squads playing Team Bath Football. Eventually they’d make a first team start playing in a team solidly grounded on a ten year history of playing Team Bath Football.
By the time the meeting had rolled around to potential budgets for the year, initial goals and what projections for funding looked like – along with his expected salary and terms – Harper was pretty much sold.
Once his footballing career was over Harper Tanner had immediately turned his attention to coaching. He’d already completed an introductory FA badge at the time of his injury. He wasn’t a big enough name – or a good enough player – to have earned enough to never need to work again following the end of his career. Being an intelligent and self aware man he’d put things in place for the day when he would have to hang up his boots. His only grievance with it was that it had all happened so suddenly and so irrevocably.
With his leg still heavily braced and needing a stick or a wheelchair to help him about Harper had completed the first step of the coaching pyramid, working towards the end goal of being fully qualified and holding fairly all the badges he’d ever need. He spoke with Pat Fenlon, his former manager at Hibs but now at Shamrock Rovers, a stones throw from where Harper himself had grown up. Pat had always known the promise in Harper, his tactical awareness and creativity on paper was fantastic, his easy going nature was disarming and he was a popular player in the dugout and the dressing room. His talent however was what had always held him back as a player.
Pat told Harper that with the badges he already had or was planning on working towards he should speak with Alan Stubbs, the then manager of Hibs about a possible place on the coaching staff. While Pat would have loved to have brought him back to South Dublin there just wasn’t the money in the Irish game to justify it. After some back and forth, some brokered by Fenlon himself and some by Tanner and his agent a contract was drafted and Harper took up residence as one of the U-16 coaches at Hibs, the club he loved.
Drawing on the legacy and memory of the Hibs legends of yesteryear Harper Tanner began developing tactics and strategies, playing around with an homage to the Famous Five – Hib’s greatest ever strike force, five of the best ever to grace Scottish football.
Harper’s U-16 dominated on the training pitch and after only four games he began coaching and managing them fully, setting up training plans and drawing out their tactics. The U-16s, guided by Harper swept aside all before them, cruising to the league title in effortless style. The football they played was gutsy and aggressive; sweeping counter attacks with fullbacks serving as the only wide men, a front three tucked in close with one dropping into a wing position to support the fullback only if absolutely required always leaving two in and around the box at any time. Two of the central three in midfield looked to press forward whenever they could, arriving late for an attack as an extra option or barrelling forward to support the wide men while the third played a combative, belligerent role as a ball winning play spoiler. The system was quick and fluid, the goal was always to get forward and attack.
Scottish schoolboys can’t be taught how to play this way – they aren’t Dutch or Spanish, he was told by other more traditional coaches. At the end of that first season they’d stopped telling him what Scottish schoolboys could and couldn’t be taught to do.
Harper had played enough football as a centre back and occasional anchor man to know he hated people running at him, hated numerous attackers at once and hated fluid tactics where people served versatile hybrid roles. He liked a striker to face him as a striker, a midfielder to stay in midfield and a fullback to defend his flanks not transition into a winger with the turn of possession. He built the game plan around what he’d hated playing against and what always seemed to work against him. The game plan was devastatingly effective.
Pulling up in his car outside the training ground Harper knew he had a lot to prove. An untested manager taking the reins of a club on the back of one of their poorest seasons in living memory; he wasn’t sure why he’d let them talk him into it. Then he remembered the way Paul Williams had talked about the football his U-16s had been playing, the performances he was drawing out of kids from the estates in Edinburgh. He smiled at the thought of what his wife had said as he rang her from the forecourt of the hire-car firm back at Bristol Airport to tell her they were moving to Bath. She’s sounded so excited that is was infectious to him.
That had been two weeks ago. In that time he’d met the board, met the press, met his backroom staff and spoken several times with the current captain. His wife, Lauri was back home waiting to see how things panned out before considering quitting her job and joining him in the South. His plan was simple; to develop a more mature version of the tactic he’d employed with Hibs and instil it in the squad from the youth team right through the reserves and on into the first team. He’d need the right backroom staff to support him though. He’d need a lot of new faces. He’d need more than the meagre trappings of a single coach, single physio and a part time assistant.
Closing his car door he marched across the car park and up to the door of the admin building and with it Paul William’s office. The players were due to arrive in the next couple of hours for the first training session under the new manager, a couple had already parked up and were eating breakfast in the café attached. As he knocked sharply before stepping inside he was aware of a few faces watching him through the window from above their plates and bowls. He chose not to look up, let them think he hadn’t noticed them or the rather greasy food they’d opted for.
Paul Williams for his part was just in the middle of a sausage and bacon butty with probably too much red sauce as Harper stepped inside. Before he could say anything Harper pulled out a chair and sat down.
“Paul, we need to talk.”
The chat with his chairman had gone almost exactly as Harper had intended. He’s been firm and forthright and when Paul had tried to make a defence of retaining the status quo Harper had rolled out a confident and assured argument; “You brought me here to manage, so let me fucking well manage.”
When he walked out of the office to lead that first training session Harper had received assurances that the board would back him. He could add one fitness and one goalkeeping coach to the slate, he could count on support to recruit two scouts and he’d be able to add an additional physio. All in all that would bring the first team coaching to five, including himself and his assistant, three first team scouts and two first team physios. That was another point of contention, the existing staff.
Harper was assured by Paul that they were all good lads, happy in their role and comfortable about Twerton Park. The counter point presented by Harper was that they might be good and happy but they’d also been part of the worst season in the club’s recent history. It was under their watch that the team had regressed, players had failed to achieve their goals and live up to their potential. His chairman had offered to terminate the contracts but Harper had said it was his call so he would swing the axe, it was the least he could do.
The next week was spent contacting people he’d met previously, those he was aware of peripherally and registering the vacancies directly with the relevant bodies in the hopes of attractive applicants.
He’d also convinced the chairman of the need for the club to become fully as opposed to semi professional – this was something they were looking at. Harper knew it wouldn’t happen overnight, it would be entirely dependant on him securing the much longed for promotion to the Conference. He filed that away to bring out of the drawer when the time came around again. His final victory in the meeting was a commitment to loosen the purse strings and let Harper go shopping for players.
That had been two weeks ago. In training the first team squad were struggling to come to terms with the dramatic change in team style and structure. A team used to playing a slow and sluggish 4-4-2 were now being asked to play a mobile and motile 4-3-3, which pivoted into a 2-3-5 when on the offensive. Some of the younger players were relishing the opportunity to learn new skills and develop their gameplan – buying into what their new manager and coaching set up were asking – some of the older ones however had their reservations. He’d identified a few weaknesses and strengths and aimed to tweak his eventual tactical plan to fit, depending on the make up of his eventual first team squad.
On the eve of the first pre-season game of the season, a tricky looking clash away to Forest Green Rovers at Nailsworth, the first of the new signings arrived. Harper had adopted a room next door to the home changing room as his office. It was small and a little grimy but it was right at the heart of the action. A gentle knock that Harper recognized as belonging to Maggie broke the silence as he read over, for the fourth time, the next opponent report provided by his newest scouting addition Andy Moore.
“Harper, have you a minute to meet with Kieran here?”
Harper stood up, his smile beaming he strode around the desk and firmly grabbed the hand of the young man in front of him. Kieran Sommerville would be the lynchpin in the new front three, the central pivot around which the others would revolve. At least that was the theory.
“How was the flight down? We’re not the biggest club down here but I promise you we’re going to be the most progressive, at least if I’ve anything to say on the matter.” Shepherding the youngster into his office and directing him to a comfy chair across from the desk Harper sat down.
The chatted casually at first, talking about Edinburgh and Livingston and the fates that had brought them both to the distant south. Kieran had grown up in and around football, at Hearts in Edinburgh and then he’d progressed to Livingston when it was clear that he’d be well down the pecking order in Midlothian. Leaving Hearts was a decision that Harper very much agreed with. He’d agreed, at the recommendations of his agent, to come south to Bath City, following a very talented young manager to a hungry team. Only 17 he was already tall enough to cause a problem at times and his finishing wasn’t bad although his all around game could use some work. All in all he was a decent signing and someone who fit perfectly into the mould that Harper was looking for; young, hungry and with potential to get better and better.
The deal wasn’t expensive but, having said that Bath couldn’t afford it to be. Eventually it could rise to £24k, something that the chairman had reluctantly agreed to – if it was to rise so high promotions would have been achieved and therefore the expense would be worth it.
After the chat and the catch up, Harper personally took Kieran on a tour of the facilities and stadium.
“It might not look much now but you won’t believe where we’ll be in a few years. Here you’ve chance to really make a name for yourself and maybe show everyone at Hearts exactly what they’re missing out on.”
Then Harper dropped the bomb he’d been hoping would get a reaction, Kieran Sommerville was starting up front for the first game of pre-season. The delivery and reaction did not disappoint.
The result however was less than ideal – Forest Green scored two in the first half, both in Harper’s mind caused by defensive mistakes. The first was a simple corner in the 18th minute, a lack of awareness on marking assignments left Dale Bennett open with the goal at his mercy. The second an optimistic long ball down the middle had Jack Batten of Bath jumping against Christian Doidge who flicked it on for Keanu Marsh-Brown to chase. Dan Ball missed a simple tackle and trap, Marsh-Brown found it only too easy to drill the ball in past the stranded keeper.
The second half got little better with Bath conceding a third shortly after the break. An incisive attack down the right flank and a high looping cross which the centre back pairing failed to deal with left a bouncing ball across the penalty spot. Marsh-Brown was only too happy to slot the ball home into the bottom left corner for 3 - 0.
Finally their moment came in the 72nd minute – Naby Diallo, playing as the right sided forward of the three latched onto a drilled ball forward. Collecting the daisy cutter he proceeded unopposed to the edge of the area before flicking a delicately weighted cross through to Kieran Sommerville. Sommerville rose like a gazelle, the ball connecting beautifully from his shock of red hair, Sam Russell dived and the net bulged; 3 - 1!
The full time whistle when it came was a relief in many ways. The first 90 minutes had ended in defeat but there were signs for optimism. Harper had already decided ahead of the game where his other core signings needed to be and the game had done nothing to change his mind. The following morning as he arrived at Twerton Park he picked up the phone and started the ball rolling on his second and third signings of the season. Getting these over the line would give Bath a real opportunity to do something a lot more meaningful.
He only had a few days until the next pre-season game, and the first outing at Twerton Park in front of a curious faithful. He had to move quickly and he knew it.
The second signing of the season came without a huge amount of fanfare. Valentin Gjokaj, previously of Derby (with six Championship appearances under his belt), Carlisle and Barnet fame had failed to make the breakthrough on a few occasions. At one point big things were expected of the Albanian under 21 but his career, it was fair to say, had not blossomed as he’d expected.
A rugged centre back was what was often needed in lower league football and the Swiss Albanian was just what Bath needed. Tall and powerful with a mean streak and a chip on his shoulder gave Harper a lot to be pleased about when the contract was signed. The lack of a transfer fee was also something which had certainly helped to remove any lingering doubts or complications.
Another junior international would arrive at Twerton Park on loan shortly thereafter, following Gjokaj west along the M4. The managerial roundabout at Charlton had seen three managers in the last twelve months with a fourth one newly warming the seat at The Valley now that Russell Slade had accepted the job. He had a lot of yesterday’s men in the squad, players signed by a prior regime who perhaps were not in his first team plans. There were others who were always intended to be youth prospects, development projects who needed competitive game time; it was to these that Harper Tanner had cast an eye.
His intended formation required a competent, combative midfielder – someone willing to devote himself to the less beautiful side of the game, someone with an axe to grind. El Hadji Ba started his career at Le Harve then Sunderland, spent time with Bastia (and their reserves) on loan before finally landing at Charlton while under the stewardship of Guy Luzon. Karel Fraeye and Jose Riga both felt him to be somewhat surplus to requirements during their stint in charge and it hadn’t taken much for Harper and the board to convince Slade that the game time so desperately needed could be had at Bath City. El Hadji Ba wasn’t thrilled at his new home but he knew he was there to do a job, to secure a future for himself; to justify his place in the Charlton squad. He’d work hard and hoped to be rewarded down at The Valley next year.
Harper was beginning to feel slightly happier. He’d added a second scout bringing the total to three for the season, albeit all part time. He’s secured the services of a goalkeeping coach and a fitness coach, again part time. Finally he’d sourced the man he wanted to play the role of assistant but had yet to secure a signature. The wait was almost unbearable. In the meantime however he’d appointed a new Head of Youth Development, a fiery Scot by the name of Damian Cross along with a new Head Physio, Clare Messing. In his heart of hearts Harper knew that these appointments likely wouldn’t last if the board agreed to go full time on contracts alongside the full professional status. He’d been open and honest with each of them – their contracts would be honoured but it was up to them to ensure that come renewal time they’d demonstrated that they had what it took to drive the club forward.
He still needed an Under 23s Manager along with a coach for them, someone to watch over the Under 18s and that was in addition to his assistant. He’d already spent time with the youth squads. He was firmly of the opinion that the manager should be a visible part of the entire set up, present at all training sessions wherever possible, irrespective of who was leading the training. The idea that the tactics of the first team would be mirrored throughout all levels was key and, he felt, by being present the players at every level felt included. He didn’t butt in, nor did he overrule any coach while on the training pitch. He did however make a few suggestions with his office door closed and more than once accepted the invitation to assist with training of the younger players. One of them in particular had caught his eye and he’d scheduled a meeting with him for the start of the next week.
The second preseason game came along all too quickly. They were at home to Cirencester, again only an hour or so away. This would be the first outing in front of the home fans and the team were understandably a little nervous.
In goal the Bristol City loanee Max O’Leary wore the number 1 jersey. He was young and eager, already having agreed to join before Harper had signed his contract. He’d only made his debut the year before and with opportunities as Ashton Gate limited he was keen to move down the leagues for game time and experience; at the current moment he was the obvious choice between the sticks.
The back four of Bath would see Gjokaj make his first appearance in a centreback pairing along with Jack Batten. At right back George Rigg retained his place and on the left again was Dan Ball; Harper was confident that would not be how they’d line up on the first day of the season however.
El Hadji Ba would sit in the hole in front of the defence, a first chance to show the skills and aggression that he was intended to bring to the fore.
The central two in midfield were comprised of Frankie Artus and Billy Murphy; neither gave Harper tingles of excitement but both were serviceable enough for now.
The front three was comprised of Kieran Sommerville in the centre, with Naby Diallo on the right and Nick McCootie shoehorned in on the left. This wasn’t an ideal solution however needs must. The beauty of preseason was in offering the potential to play around with formations and play around with squad roles so while not ideal it may give some valuable information. Nick was good in the air, powerful and strong – a natural number 9 – Kieran was cut of a similar cloth while Naby was quicker and more technical. The three together would pose interesting problems and Harper was excited when the knock came on his door to tell him it was time.
He pushed open the changing room door, the smell of the citrus cleaner mingled with the various aftershaves and deodorants in use. The fluorescent lighting bounced of the white tiles in a rather disorientating way as he made his way between the wood and metal benches and locker bank to stand at the front of the room. It was very similar to a few changing rooms in the lower leagues in Scotland he’d played in. It was similar to a couple of them from lower leagues in England he’d visited on preseason tours and a couple in Ireland too. The thing it most reminded him of though was the old school gym changing rooms from his time at high school.
Looking down at the faces arranged in front of him he suddenly felt very much like a teacher addressing his class. He rose to his full height, cleared his throat and began.
“Right lads, Cirencester.” He left the words hanging for a moment. “Teams like these will be coming here all season. Teams like these will see you and think about last year and think they can have their way. Well I say fuck ‘em! Tonight you get to show everyone here that Bath City are no push overs! Tonight you get to show all the faithful here that they were right to spend their hard earned walking through the turnstyles! Tonight you have the opportunity to get out there and lay down a marker, draw a line in the sand and show them that Twerton Park should be somewhere they fear coming!”
The faces were engaged, some nodded and some murmured under their breath. Harper had always enjoyed this aspect of the role, it was something he always loved to do as a captain, or more often vice captain. He could see them buying into it, he could see that he was reaching them and that was half the battle.
“Tonight I want to see crisp passing – faces forward, passes forward; you play a momentum breaking backpass and you’d better have a damn good reason. Play through the middle when you can, balls through to EHB, Arf and Murphy, balls through to the fullbacks when you can’t – you guys have the ability to change the game and I want you to show it! You boys in the centre need to support the attacks – give an option and make things awkward for Cirencester. Last word for the three of you,” he turned to Sommerville, Diallo and McCootie. “I have faith in you, last week you showed that you can score against far better opposition than Cirencester! You will get opportunities today and you will get sight on goal. I don’t need you to lash every shot you see but I want you to make their keeper work for his money. Well, what are you waiting for? Let’s get at them!”
The crowd wasn’t large, it never was at Twerton Park – but they gave the Team Bath players a rousing reception. Each name called out on the PA was met with a cheer, the new signings more so than the established veterans Harper noted.
Straight from the kick off Bath were on the offensive. A clean ball picked out the right fullback racing forward unopposed. He collected the pass and lifted a diagonal cross deep into the Cirencester box, their keeper rose well and snagged it out of the air under challenge from Sommerville. The rest of the half played out in similar grounds, Bath would attack – primarily from wide fullback crosses and the keeper or defenders would deal with it. A time or two the ball broke for Diallo or McCootie to chase and there was more than one occasion where the break was three on three or two on three but always the final ball was lacking.
The half time whistle brought a halt to proceedings with the score still firmly 0 - 0. Despite the better possession, despite the better attacks and more fluid play Bath hadn’t broken the deadlock. Harper’s halftime talk was simple, “More of the same please” and his players didn’t disappoint.
On the 64th minute Bath won a corner. A hopeful ball forward from EHB chased down by Diallo left him one on one with the keeper. His shot was weak and it was easily parried around the post. The corner itself curled inwards beautifully, Gjokaj rose majestically at the near post, flicking it on and into the six yard box. Unopposed at the back post was Jack Batten with the goal at his mercy… and he put it wide. The crowd vented their frustration; some of the invectives thrown at Batten were needless, some were however a fair approximation of the gilt edge chance he’d just missed.
Blushes were thankfully spared just over ten minutes later when Diallo broke on the right, Murphy found him with a well weighted through ball and he in turn found Sommerville unmarked twelve yards out. The keeper lunged but was beaten, Sommerville struck for the second game in a row.
In the 82nd minute Bath again found themselves through, Naby Diallo once more the creative force cut in from wide right to the edge of the box. Lashing a left foot shot with dip and curl around the last defender and the outstretched arms of the keeper he made it 2 – 0. The game continued on in similar vein for the last few minutes before the referee brought the contest to an end. Bath ran out deserving winners.
In the dressing room after the match Harper paid credit to Sommerville for breaking the deadlock but singled out Naby Diallo as his man of the moment. The forward with one assist and one goal was rewarded with a mention in the Non-League Paper as one to watch in the coming year. Harper excused himself and found his opposite number is short order. The two shared a beer in Harper’s office and wished each other well for the season to come before Cirencester’s boss, Charlie Griffin, made his excuses.
The seeds were beginning to be sown at Bath – Harper could feel the change on the horizon. He still needed a couple more transfers and a couple more tweaks to the squad before the season started for real. In his office next to the dressing room he brought up the contacts list on his phone and pressed dial. The phone buzzed a metallic noise in his ear as he waited for it to be answered.
“Hi, this is Harper Tanner. Is that Chris?”
The next few weeks passed something of a blur. Bath played another three games in that stretch, against Cribbs FC at Twerton Park, away to Hereford FC at Edgar Street and a difficult road game at Chippenham Town. The signings continued at pace for Harper as did his internal appointments. There was however something else which had put a smile of his face, Lauri had joined him in Bath.
They’d moved into a rental house on the outskirts of the city, in a nice quiet suburb. She wasn’t the typical wag, but Harper hadn’t been the typical player. She was short, about 5’4 with pale skin and dark eyes. Her left nostril was pierced and her hair was partially shaved over the left ear, the rest jet black and choppy with a streak of electric pink and neon blue to complement. Her arms, neck and chest were tattooed and she even had a couple of stars tattooed onto her scalp above her left ear, peeking through the shaven hair.
Next to the bronzed, often blonde stereotypical wag she cut a dramatic and alternative figure. Harper had met her in a tattoo parlour in Edinburgh perhaps ten years ago when Harper was getting a piece on his ribs. Lauri was working the desk and booking the diary and they’d had an instant connection. It hadn’t taken her long to work herself into the artist’s chair and soon enough she was putting ink on Harper herself between games. They dated for almost two years and then tied the knot, adding a large brown Dogue De Bordeaux named Fitz to complete the family.
She’d waited until Harper was sure he wasn’t coming back before moving down for the final time. The house up in Edinburgh would be rented out and the removals firm would transfer their belongings down over the next few days.
Having her and Fitz with him made Harper a lot more settled, seeing her opening boxes and unpacking nicknacks in their new home while Fitz snored made it all feel real, not just some wild adventure or holiday from reality – he was really doing it, he was really making progress.
She’d made something of a splash at Twerton Park too, coming down to training to see Harper and the lads that first morning – once or twice shouting from the sidelines, a little cheerleader until Harper politely asked her to stop distracting him and the team while training was in session. He got a bit of stick from a few of the players, it helped humanise him a little – he wasn’t merely a manager, he was one of the boys and was a part of the character of the place. The buy-in from the players improved immensely in the following days and weeks. He even took to taking Fitz with him from time to time, letting the big brown beast sleep under his desk while he completed the more mundane and less glamorous jobs associated with managing a non-league club.
Lauri for her part had also started helping out with the admin, arranging some of the community outreach and helping in a voluntary capacity to spread the word. Maggie loved her; the two were very different but together proved a somewhat formidable team. Lauri was friendly and engaging, confident and, at times, rather pointed in her delivery. She called a spade a spade and didn’t pussyfoot around which was refreshing. It made Harper happy to see her finding her feet and feeling out a niche, it was nice having her around the ground and training facilities now and then but she didn’t intend on that being a permanent thing; she’d always been fiercely independent and wasn’t about to let moving to the south change that.
Gently she’d started to put the feelers out to a few studios in and around Bath as to whether any chairs were free or might be coming up in the coming months. Her fingers were beginning to twitch and there were only so many drawing pads she could fill before she would need to do something about it.
The telephone call following the win over Chippenham had also been productive for Harper. They spoke for five or ten minutes and then arranged to meet to discuss things face to face, informally at first but with a view to seeing what happened next. Harper had driven up to Birmingham for the meeting, arriving at the hotel in the centre a little early. He’d found Chris already waiting for him with a cup of coffee and a copy of the paper.
Chris Iwelumo had enjoyed a career far in advance of anything Harper had achieved. He’d played the majority of his career in the Championship, had earned a handful of international caps and even started a game against a celebrated Argentina side at Hamden Park. He’d dabbled in management and coaching, looking after the U-18s at Wolverhampton, albeit it very briefly, while also coaching at Chester, his last club as a player.
Chris had met Harper through the coaching courses and several other events. They were both intelligent and thoughtful characters, Chris having recently finished studies at Staffordshire Uni, and the two shared a passion for youth development. Over a couple of coffees and a light lunch the two pencilled out what Harper was looking for, what Bath could offer and where Chris wanted to get to long term and how they fit in with one another. At the end of the informal chat they’d made arrangements for Chris to come down to Bath the following day to meet with Paul Williams and discuss the vacant Assistant Manager’s post. By the end of the week Harper had secured the assistant he’d been looking for – someone who bought into the project and had a wealth of experience to call upon which Harper was perhaps lacking in.
On a twelve month deal Chris signed the first and only full time contract for staff other than Harper’s own. To say the board were pleased was an understatement. The Non-League Paper’s opinion was clear from their coverage, All Change at Twerton Park – New Backroom Team Promises Big Things.
On the back of Chris Iwelumo joining the coaching team Team Bath had also added to the squad. Dennis Adeniran, a skilful seventeen year old midfielder had joined on loan from Fulham and Alex Iacovitti, a talented and old school centre half of eighteen had come on loan from Nottingham Forest. The additions were improving the squad from front to back; bringing in players that had played at a higher level or had experienced a better standard could only help matters.
The new signings slotted straight into the team for the three friendlies. Cribbs FC were overturned 3-0, with goals from Diallo, Gjokaj and Sommerville for his third in three. Hereford FC were beaten on the road 1-2, pleasingly Harper’s Bath came back from a goal down through goals from Adeniran and McCootie. Only the final game of the three gave Harper pause; against a Chippenham Town side sitting a division below Bath FC the team struggled to a 1-1 draw. Sommerville found the net again but McCootie looked ill at ease in a wider role. Profligate in front of goal and failing to drop back to link play he was very much the weak link, combined with a somewhat misfiring fullback the left flank was a disaster for Bath FC. Chippenham Town pressed their advantage, exposing McCootie and Ball at every opportunity. Good play from Iacovitti, O’Leary and Gjokaj kept them honest but if anything the 1-1 scoreline flattered Bath City; they'd been woeful.
Only a couple of weeks to go until the start of the season proper and there were still issues in the squad both tactically and with personnel. Time was running out for Harper Tanner. The forward line still needed work, the defence could do with some competition and between the sticks he was uncomfortable without a serviceable backup on the books.
He’d been toying for a week or two with blooding some of the younger players fresh from the youth team. To finalise his thinking Harper arranged an inter-squad friendly between the first team squad and a team made up of the U-23s and U-18s. Harper would manage the first group while the second would be lead by Chris.
They scheduled the match for ten days before the start of the season proper, with one additional friendly to be played between the two dates.
Harper had only one instruction to Chris in the run up to the game, “Come at us and come at us hard; the lads need to be tested and I need to see who’ll break.” Chris did not fail to honour the instruction.
The rain was cold and hard. Even under the shelter on the bench Harper was pelted with cold, sharp raindrops. Wrapped up in a large coat he found himself wondering if it was indeed July or not, the one thing you could always count on the British weather for was that you couldn’t count on it.
His team had remained mostly unchanged for the friendly. O’Leary started in goal with the back four of Rigg, Ball, Gjokaj and Iacovitti behind a midfield trio of Ba, Ideniran and Murphey with McCootie, Diallo and Sommerville as the point of the spear. Chris had called up a hodge podge of players from both the U-23s and U-18s with a few in particular that Harper had his eye on. Both squads would start out with the same formation, the Team Bath way in full force from the get go.
Behind the dugouts a number of the board members had made an appearance, with Paul Williams pint in hand wrapped in a black and white Bath City scarf making his presence loudly known. Nearby sat most of the players families with Lauri sporting a black hoodie and jeans – unlike most of the others she remained standing for most of the 90 minutes cheering and shouting. The stadium offered free entry to fans for the open door training match but less than a hundred or so had come through the turnstyles. Harper wasn’t sure if it was the weather, the lack of an opposing team or the fact it was a Thursday evening but either way the fans had not made the trip to Twerton Park. If Bath were going to achieve what he wanted to achieve they needed to engage with the fans, and soon.
The game kicked off quite sedately with the nominal home side, the main squad, stroking the ball around without a great deal or urgency or desire. This gentle pass around lasted all of three minutes however. Treating the game very much as an extended training session Nick McCootie wasn’t expecting the challenge to come in as hard or as readily as it did when the youngster Chris Coade slid in very hard on him from the left, winning the ball and landing the big forward on his backside. The ball knocked on from the challenge ran to the feet of Murphey who was also met with a vicious and lively tackle from Coade again, who’d popped to his feet with a point to prove. Harper shot a glance to Iwelumo who struggled to hide the smile on his face. Game on.
Within a few minutes Diallo shouted over to Harper, he wasn’t enjoying the exuberance of the tackles and anyway wasn’t this just a training game? Harper gave it him back in no uncertain terms that this was pre-season and if he thought the kids hit hard wait until the real crunch point of the season. By half time and with the score at 0 – 0 Harper had reason to be both happy and irritated – happy at the performance of a couple of the younger lads particularly Coade for the reserves and Ideniran for the main team and irritated at the performance and attitude of a couple of the older players, in particular Diallo and McCootie. In no uncertain terms he made it abundantly clear that if the U-23s or U-18s outperform you then questions would be asked as to who deserved to be in the first XI, and who should be on the bench or in the reserves. The point came across to all but a few.
Up in the stands Lauri started in on a hot coffee, strong, milky and with a couple of sugars from the burger van behind the stand. She always got a look from Harper because, as he put it, if it was any sweeter she might as well drink syrup.
Maggie beside her quietly slipped a nip from a hip flask into her coffee and offered it to Lauri, “Something to warm you up love?”
Lauri popped the lid off her paper cup and nodded. The dark rum gave the coffee warmth and a depth of flavour which made her think of Christmas and winter. It was a little incongruous on a July evening but nevertheless it was pleasant enough in the wind and the rain of the evening.
The two had chatted earlier in the week about this and that, Lauri touching on her urge to start tattooing again and the job at the studio she’d left behind in Edinburgh. She’d even promised to show Maggie a few of her sketch pads and doodled ideas when they found the time. They’d met for lunch and a glass of wine the day before the game and had tossed around a few ideas about how to make best use of the skills at the club’s disposal as far as community engagement and the like was concerned. It hadn’t taken long for them to strike up a friendship and they’d arranged to meet up at weekend and take the Fitz and Maggie’s dog Charlie for a walk together along the Cotswolds Way.
By the time the players came out for the second half the rum had nicely warmed Lauri’s cheeks and the wind had started to die down, the rain for its part was still as insistent as ever.
The team lead by Chris had a point to prove and it showed; they were however now facing a team that had been given a rodding. Most of the lads had realised this wasn’t just any old training game; there was a need to perform and to play. Finally the team began to perform as they needed with Diallo and Sommerville both launching stinging shots at goal. Between the sticks for the second team Cory Harvey proved a capable shot stopper but the pressure was beginning to tell. Soon enough Harvey’s goal was starting to look under siege.
On the 53rd minute Ideniran pounced. Sommerville’s shot palmed out by Harvey rebounded between the defenders and forwards. Ideniran advanced onto the ball and from twenty yards out drilled it hard and clean first time into the top right corner with Harvey still scrambling to get back into position. A second came in short order through Gjokaj from a freekick taken by Ideniran, rising high to meet the ball with a powerful header past the helpless keeper. Both teams rang the changes between the 60th and 75th minutes, this disrupted the momentum slightly but the difference in class still shone through overall.
Despite a few stellar performances from the reserve squad a third goal came in the 81st minute from Frankie Artus following a game of pinball in the box. Harper applauded both teams as the final whistle went, personally going across to several of the youngsters as they left the field. Following the game Harper and Chris met up with the rest of the coaching staff for a debrief. He wanted to gauge all opinions before he moved on with what he was planning, after the conversations which were frank and honest Harper stated that he’d make his decision over the weekend. There was one more person he needed to get the opinion of.
Over breakfast the next morning Harper walked Lauri through his thoughts. She’d gone with Maggie for a glass or two after the game and had woken up feeling slightly muggy. She assured Harper she wasn’t hung over she was just a bit tired but in truth her head was a more than a little fuzzy. She’d made it downstairs and forced an almond croissant down and made a show of having a coffee, ultimately though it went cold before she could face it. While she sat at the glass kitchen table in the long black vest top she’d slept in he’d got dressed and sorted himself out in jeans and an AC/DC tshirt.
Cory Harvey was a good keeper, great promise and potentially one for the future, right now though he just wasn’t up to the level of O’Leary. Harper would move him to the first team squad to serve as cover for O’Leary while playing for the U-23s if the games didn’t clash. Chris Coade would be moved up from the U-18s into the U-23s with a view to use him as cover if needed by the first team squad. He had a lot of hope in Chris Coade and Harvey.
Bouncing the ideas off Lauri always seemed to help. She had a knack for knowing when he needed a counter argument, when he needed affirmation and when he really did need to iron out his thinking. On this matter he’d already made his mind up and just needed to know whether he was right in making the changes. She listened, asked a few leading questions and between them he came to the decision he’d already made. When she stood up to clear the breakfast plates he was happy in his own mind. Feeling slightly pleased with herself she put another pot of coffee on and then toddled upstairs to grab a shower, leaving little bare footed footprints down the laminate wood floor.
After breakfast Harper took Fitz for a quick run while Lauri checked her emails in a towel and chased a few studios. She’d planned a route through the city to stop in and get a little face time with a few of the studios and artists, she was also going to drop in to a couple of galleries and the like, places that tickled her fancy so to speak. She intended to tick off something that herself and Maggie had touched on and poke her nose into some of the festival spaces and community hubs, she had a little plan forming and wanted to feel out the edges of it before she made any more concrete enquiries.
By the time Harper had arrived at Twerton Park he was feeling a little hungry. He stopped in the café and they agreed to bring him a bit of something through to his office along with a hot coffee, black with no sugar. As he was about to leave Chris Iwelumo came inside in the other direction, rather than head straight back to the office he stopped for a quick few minutes with Chris. Chris placed his order and then the two sat down at the table in the window, looking out over the carpark.
The staff for the Co-Op and post office were just arriving, parking on the far side of the open space. They watched as the cars were parked and the staff made their way inside. Harper and Chris exchanged a little small talk, touched on the debriefing from the night before and then Chris addressed the elephant in the room.
“Coots just isn’t getting it, he doesn’t want to play wide and he doesn’t think the tactics will work against the bigger clubs. I think to be honest he just doesn’t want to be here anymore.”
Harper knew the rumblings of discontent from the striker were beginning to leak out. He’d had a word with Nick McCootie himself about his attitude and the need to put in a shift at times, he wasn’t naturally a quick and technical forward and being shoehorned into a versatile role something more akin to a false nine just wasn’t in his DNA.
“I think we need to look at bringing in another forward, if only for competition. Naby seems to have picked it up pretty well but Coots just isn’t cutting it. You saw it yourself last night, little Chrissy Coade schooled him at times – and he’s just a kid!”
“It’s not that easy though Chris, totally agree we need bodies and a forward wouldn’t hurt but right now its finances. I had to really push my point to get the guys in I have and, without being too much of a dick about it, in order to bring you in too. There isn’t a lot left in the pot. If we want to hold something back in reserve for the January window we can’t spend it all now, we just can’t. Listen, do what you can to have a word with Coots, coming from you it might give him the kick he needs. If I do it myself he might feel like he’s being picked on. Have a quiet word, casually, let him know that he needs to start, you know, actually proving he deserves the salary he’s on. If that doesn’t work then we’ll see about doing something else. I’ll have a word with Paul though; let him know I need a bit more from his pocket.”
Once he was back in his office Harper started in on the next part of his plans. He let Maggie know that he needed a word with Paul Williams when he was back on site. He was spending the day golfing with a couple of the other board members along with a couple from the clubs over Bristol way. Harper had never understood the fascination with golf but as so many of the people involved in the game loved it he’d had to on occasion spend time on the courses. Typically he’d shank a few balls into the rough and then retire for a few drinks. Golf was one sport that Harper had no interest in what so ever.
He did however have a note on his desk which Maggie had left for him. By the time the breakfast and coffee arrived – a full English with an extra fried tomato and a side of toast – Harper was already on the telephone following up on it. The call didn’t last long and his breakfast was still hot when he rung off. He stabbed a sausage and took a bite while he made a note in his calendar on the computer.
Monday 25th July – Meeting with Ava Foster, Non-League Paper
Finishing up his breakfast Harper sent a message to his scouting team, Find me a forward – pacey, good technician, f9 if you can, asap. He then sent another message direct to the chief scout, Review of best players available on current budget across all positions – your recommendations, cheers.
He picked up his keys and wallet, switched off the lights. The youth team were about to start a session under Chris Iwelumo and he wanted to deliver the news to Coade and Harvey in person. As he pushed open the door and stepped outside into the blustery day Harper had no idea what the next week would bring. On the 6th August he’d lead the team out for their first game of the season but before that there was one final pre-season game to go.
And what a game it would be.
The sheet was handwritten, the uppermost left corner had the edge of a coffee ring on it and somewhere in the margin someone had written something – perhaps a phone number – before tearing it off. It was hardly professional in appearance but it had the information that Harper had requested.
had a look at the players available - best in each position / area.
Goal – Oli Davies, just released by Swansea
Defence – Alex Whitmore, currently at Burnley but they’re shopping him, probably cost £10k
Midfield – Andi Thanoi, Albanian junior international, played with Gjoks – solves set piece issues; another FT
Attack – Jason Williams, at Southend but willing to release on FT – not an f9 but as close as we’ll get
FT, free transfer – that could be interesting. Harper had heard of Jason Williams and the guys from Swansea and Burnley but Thanoi was a mystery. He sent a text to Valentin Gjokaj to come to his office when the player arrived on site for training; he then sent another to Chris Iwelumo and Robert Paterson, Chief Scout, asking them to be there too.
Chris and Robert arrived at Harper’s office ten minutes before Gjokaj knocked and let himself in. They discussed the experience he’d had with Thanoi, his character and the type of player he was. Once they’d satisfied themselves they excused Gjokaj and set about arranging for Thanoi to come for a trial.
In the next day or so Bath City made formal offers for Oliver Davies and Jason Williams before sending a probing enquiry to Burnley over Whitmore. Davies’ agent was keen to get his lad some game time, requesting a core role in the squad for his charge. With O’Leary in place that could be tricky but Harper rolled the dice on it and agreed, Oli Davies would make the journey over to Bath later in the week with a view to signing a contract.
The free offer for Jason Williams was held by Southend for a day or two before they accepted. The contract negotiation lasted all of ninety minutes between Bath and Williams’ representatives with both walking away happy.
Training had been going well in the run up to the final game of pre-season. The new signings were slotting into place nicely and the players he’d inherited were for the most part catching on with the tactical nuances of Harper’s intended formation and strategy. Still however certain players were either deemed unsuitable, unable or unwilling to bend and try out the new style of play. Harper allowed Andy Watkins to leave on a free, while a couple more were placed on the transfer list. A couple of the younger lads were also lined up for loans out to further their development with meaningful game time.
The morning of the game against Oxford United of League One Oli Davies signed on the dotted line as did Jason Williams, neither would be available for the game but would be for the start of the season proper. Andi Thanoi had joined on trial and Burnley had replied to the enquiry, Whitmore was available at a cost of £18k. Harper had responded with an offer of £8k plus add-ons, eventually looking to rise to £11k if all went to plan. By the end of the next day Harper would arrange for Whitmore to come down to Bath to negotiate his personal terms.
Confidence was high around Twerton Park as they boarded the coach to take them up to the Kassam. By the time they boarded the coach on the return however Harper felt like he’d been punched in the stomach.
“So Harper, thanks for taking the time to speak to me. It’s really appreciated.”
“No Ava, thank you.” Harper smiled warmly at the dark haired woman sat at the other side of his desk. “After reading a few of your articles I’m just glad its you that made the trip.”
On the journey back following the ruck at Oxford Harper got a phone call from Maggie, the Non-League Paper wanted to schedule an interview as part of their season preview. He’d told her that he was happy to meet up but that it would need to be sooner rather than later. A few minutes later he’d received a second phone call, Maggie had arranged for them to meet the following morning at 11:00.
Ava opened her courier bag and took out a notepad and pen then she lifted out a little Dictaphone recorder and placed it on the desk. “Do you mind if..?” She left the question hanging, Harper watched the little red light blink on. He nodded and gestured for her to continue.
Once she’d sorted herself out she began. Harper took her in as she fussed with her notes. She was well put together to coin a phrase. Her hair was scraped back into a tight bun at the back of her head, ears decorated with drop earrings like dangling silver raindrops. Make up was applied to accentuate her cheekbones and her lips were painted rather dark. All in all it was more natural and sympathetic than slapped on with a trowel so to speak. She wasn’t classically beautiful but made the most of what she had. The formal trouser suit she wore and the small heels presented a professional and proper air to her and she still carried the university accent shed’ adopted at some earlier stage in life. As she fussed Harper struggled to estimate an age for her, eventually settling on early thirties.
“So you’ve just completed the pre-season, how do you think it went?”
Harper shuffled in his chair and before answering took a drink of the water on his desk.
“All in all I think we’ve reason to be happy with it. We’ve brought in new members of the squad, people are getting acquainted and forming partnerships, we’re developing the outlines of a team as opposed to just a squad.”
Ava smiled a fond and genuine smile which made her eyes twinkle slightly. Despite himself Harper found himself returning it.
“Its good to hear you’re turning a corner then, after last season the board must be very happy.”
They spoke for a few minutes about expectations for the year ahead, where the board expected or wanted the club to be and where they hoped to end up from both a points and financial stand point. Eventually they turned to the most recent events.
“You said earlier that you were happy with pre-season overall, can we get your thoughts on yesterday’s game? I know you spoke to a few after the match but I’d like to hear your thoughts myself, if that’s okay?”
Harper shifted his weight in the chair. The game had been something of a disaster all around, not just due to the score-line.
“What do you want to know?”
“Well,” she glanced at the notepad, pen readied before again meeting his eye. “Can you tell me what happened, in your own words?”
Harper took another mouthful, emptying the glass. Before starting his reply he refilled the glass from the jug Maggie has so thoughtfully left in the office. A wedge of lemon and a wedge of lime bopped together on the surface of the jug threatening idly to cascade into the glass.
“I suppose it’s fair to say that the difference in class was apparent but I don’t think going down to ten men helped us at all.” Ava began scribbling without taking her eyes off Harper’s face. “Rigg really made things difficult for us there and we’ve had words about it. I think the boys did well in the second half to make a game of it but ultimately Oxford are a League One outfit and we’re regional Conference, those three leagues are a lot to make up.”
The game had started adventurously; straight from the kick off Diallo had broken down the right flank supported by Rigg. The cross was sent in early with Sommerville stretching to connect. The shot was therefore not the strongest but was on target and was difficult for the keeper to reach. He’d palmed it out to his fullback who cleared quickly and skilfully. The game was fairly end to end for the first few minutes with fast paced attack following counter following attack. Bath held their own for the first frantic exchanges and the 800 or so travelling fans were thoroughly enjoying the spectacle.
Until the eleventh minute.
Oxford United won a corner following the industry of Ryan Ledson. O’Leary rose to collect the cross, punching clear under challenge from Aaron Martin and landed heavily on his right arm. Rushing to his aid Gjokaj signalled the bench earnestly and the referee blew to stop play. Physios came on from both teams and Harper watched in horror as they signalled that he needed to come off. Cory Harvey, on the bench to make up the numbers, removed his drill top and jogging pants and made his way onto the field.
“How was O’Leary, after the game you only said that he was still being looked at?”
“His forearm is broken, quite a bad break to be honest. We’re speaking with Bristol City about his loan and where that leaves everything. He might be returning to Bristol or he might be staying for the season, either way though it’ll be a few months before he’s able to play.”
Ava nodded and bit her lip. “Sorry.” She ventured.
Following the restart the game remained rather evenly poised with end to end football and quick, inventive play only being broken up by the defenders or skill of the goalkeepers on show. Harper got the news from down the tunnel that it looked like a break and they were going to run him up to the hospital. As he was digesting that news his day got worse.
Broken from his reverie by the sounding of the referee’s whistle he looked across the field to see George Rigg standing with his arms outstretched and Joe Rothwell on the deck clutching his leg. A 50/50 ball, bouncing between them had seen Rigg go in hard; studs showing and missing the ball completely had taken out the young midfielder. In no doubt as to the danger and recklessness of the challenge Rigg was shown a straight red and Rothwell became the second player to leave the game through injury.
On his way to the tunnel Harper and Rigg exchanged the briefest of words, mostly of the four letter variety. El Hadji Ba jogged across to the sideline to receive a little instruction from Harper to reshuffle and reorganise the team.
The game restarted with a free kick thirty five yards from Bath’s goal. The ball was lofted in and effortlessly put away by Sam Long, rising highest in the box to drill a header past the helpless Harvey. Within another ten minutes Bath City found themselves two goals down; overpowered and overrun in midfield Harper watched Oxford City’s strikers exchange passes at the edge of the box and Roberts unmarked tuck the ball away into the bottom right corner.
“Two goals down at half time, keeper injured and a man down – despite that you have to admit that the second half was reassuring to some degree?”
“I think in the second half we showed the fight and fire we’ll need throughout the season to come but still we shouldn’t have put ourselves in that position.”
Ava chewed the end of the pen slightly before jotting another note.
Following a roasting at half time - the second Harper had delivered - the team came back out a much improved outfit. They fought for the ball, pressed and made life difficult for Oxford. Ten minutes after half time the woodwork was rattled by a long range effort from El Hadji Ba, filling in at right back following the reshuffle.
A further chance came almost immediately afterwards, a long looping cross from the left flicked on by Sommerville saw Diallo strike a first time volley from just inside the area. Oxford’s goalkeeper Simon Eastwood could do nothing more than put it out for a corner. The corner came to nothing and on the 60th minute the changes were rung with loanee Thanoi brought on into the centre of the park.
With only ten minutes left to play Oxford had a breakaway, again bossing the numbers in midfield they found Kane Hemmings free with room to advance on goal. He drilled a hard shot straight into the anticipating arms of Harvey who, without waiting, delivered an arcing punt downfield. Turning defence into attack in a single motion Harper watched as Diallo brought the ball down effortlessly onto his right foot, cut inside, beat the last defender and slide the ball below the onrushing goalkeeper. Harper held his breath but despite beating the keeper Diallo couldn’t beat the post, the inside of the right upright deflected the ball back across goal. Had McCootie been in position he’d have had the goal at his mercy, unfortunately he was not. Oxford cleared before he could advance on the loose ball.
Five minutes before time Bath made things interesting. A Thanoi free kick outside Oxford’s box was turned into the six yard area by Murphey. On the back post was McCootie who made up for his earlier positional error to tuck it away for 2 – 1.
Oxford again pressed after the restart making their man advantage count, winning another corner and having a further two shots on target giving Harvey work to do. Eventually in stoppage time Harvey was beaten by Hemmings, a vicious piledriver into the top right corner silencing the away fans urging the team on; 3 – 1.
“Still only one goal down until stoppage time against a side so many divisions above, cause for optimism at least?”
Harper conceded that the second half had been how he would like the team to play. There were mistakes and certain elements of the team and squad perhaps still needed work. Ava asked him about additional signings, with rumours that Bath were due to bring more players in including from Southend and Burnley. He neither confirmed nor denied it but advised her she’d know soon enough. She asked about Thanoi, again he was non-committal.
As the interview drew to a close she switched off the Dictaphone and slipped the notepad back into her bag.
Harper walked her out, down the corridor and into the car park. The sun was poking through the clouds; it looked like it was going to turn into a really nice day.
They thanked one another for their time and Ava pressed a card into Harper’s outstretched hand.
“If you have anything for me, anything at all, just let me know – I only live down the way and I’d be happy to help you out. My dad supported Bath for years - he still comes to the games at Twerton Park and donated into the community fund to buy the club. Anyway, hopefully speak to you soon?”
She brushed a stray set of hairs, tucking them behind her ear, smiled again and made her way down towards her car. He watched her until she was in the car, waved and turned around, walking back into the admin block attached to Twerton Park. He looked at the business card, her contact details at the Non-League Paper were printed boldly on one side. On the reverse Ava had written a mobile phone number along with the word “Personal” and a small “x”.
Harper smiled as he sat back behind his desk, perhaps he hadn’t lost it after all.
“It’s absolutely beautiful from up here isn’t it, you can see for miles.”
“Just wait ‘til you get to the top, over Lansdown and the old battlefield – very impressive.”
Maggie was a little out of breath but tried not to show it as she spoke. Her dog, a little grey Bedlington terrier chased between lines of birds resting in the grasses, kicking up a swirl of colours and shapes against the blue sky. Fitz happily loped after him, a large brown shadow forever tailing the feisty little fellow. The playing fields were quiet, a few kids tossed a ball around – a rugby ball Lauri noted – while here and there a dog was walked or exercised chasing this and that.
Lauri had been in the Cotswolds for five weeks or so, it would be six after the weekend. It reminded her in a lot of ways of her hometown of Edinburgh. Maggie had been probing in that direction as they’d walked the dogs up to the playing fields from where they’d parked their cars.
“I used to walk Fitz up around Arthur’s Seat when I got the chance or on down the Water of Leith, only problem there was keeping him out of the river!”
Maggie stopped beside her and the two watched the dogs chase birds and each other. It was peaceful and quiet, calm and relaxing. Lauri still felt tense, her arms tight at her side she was a picture of carefully hidden nerves.
The two walked slowly around the playing fields, cutting across to get off the road. The route Maggie had suggested was five miles around. They’d come up once before but not gone as deep or far into the green surrounding the old city of Bath. Lauri hadn’t been as visible around Twerton Park in the last week as she’d tried to find a chair in a studio to continue tattooing. She hadn’t been successful yet but wasn’t at the point of giving in.
“So did you and Harper walk Fitz together back in Edinburgh? You’ll have to get him up here, get him away from that desk – clear his head a little.”
Lauri smiled. “We used to walk him together a few times a week, every other day depending on when he was training and when I was working – that’s when he was at Hibs with the kids. He could never go all that far because of his leg and he didn’t like taking a stick out with him so we just used to go on short, gentler walks.”
“And before that - while he was still playing?”
Lauri smiled again, a little less warmly.
“We didn’t have Fitz until after his injury. We hadn’t really thought about a dog until he had to give it up.”
Maggie watched as the kids playing rugby lofted the ball high into the air. Two of the others chased it down, catching it cleanly out of the sky as it fell. The two dogs were too involved in their own game to notice the chance to take the ball.
“Do you think he can do it?”
Maggie searched for the right wording.
“Well, everything Paul and the boys upstairs are looking for. They’re hanging a lot on Harper; they want him to get kids like that to start kicking a football and stop chasing eggs to coin a phrase.”
“If anyone can…” She left it hanging. Lauri had full faith in Harper to turn around the fortunes at Bath City, when he sunk his teeth into a problem he could be tenacious. He was positive and passionate and that had an impact on the kids he’d had under him and from them that had fed through into the club as a whole. Now, with the chance to effect that change from the top down she had no worries at all. If nothing else Harper would develop an identity for the team and get people talking about them. After that it would come down to the board, to finances and not to put too fine a point on it to the results on a Saturday.
News out of Bath had been promising throughout the week. Jason Williams and Oliver Davies had joined the squad; Alex Whitmore had come to iron our personal terms and Andi Thanoi had seen his trial converted to a 12 month contract. Behind the scenes Paul Williams was hurried finalising some sponsorship deals and they were hoping to be a part of one of the many Bath Festivals over the course of the next twelve months. Lauri hadn’t seen much of Harper since the last pre-season game. He’d done a couple of interviews, been in meetings and arrangements and even found time to get his picture taken for the official photos.
Unlike most of the staff who wore training kits or similar Harper had insisted on wearing his usual boots, dark jeans and a hoodie – a Bath City hoodie as sold in the club shop. He wasn’t one for suits and ties and he wasn’t about to be shoehorned into one for the benefit of a team photo. The players in the team photo were wearing what they’d wear on a Saturday and so was he, which fairly ended the argument. His other insistence had been that they’d have one photo with all players and team in kit and one in street clothes; humanise them all a little. The second photo was taken with them not on the pitch as traditional but in the stands, like the fans who’d be cheering them on. Hopefully.
The two walked for a couple of hours with the dogs and by the time they got back to their cars with dogs thoroughly worn out from their games, the day’s training at Twerton Park would be coming to a close.
Maggie wouldn’t be heading back to the ground today but would be back in her usual place first thing; first day of a new season was always a busy one, especially when playing at home.
“So what are they like Margate?” Lauri had heard of the place but never in the context of football, only as a holiday destination or seaside break. She hazily recalled something about Chas and Dave too but that was only in the most vague terms. At least she thought it was Chas and Dave.
“They were lucky last year, could have been relegated but for a single goal. Not a lot of fans and not a lot to spend. They were promoted up to our level only the other year. A lot of people are expecting them to head straight back down this time.”
Maggie bleeped the fob on her keys and the lights on her car flashed, a little white VW Polo. She opened the back hatch and Charlie expectantly jumped in. In the back was a small pop out bowl and a bottle of water which she generously filled and placed on the floor beside the car. Charlie watched her and then jumped back out, noisily and messily draining the bowl before pushing it in a circle with his nose.
Fitz for his part greedily worked his way through the waterbowl which Lauri had left out for him. His was a little steel dish with a rubber footing to stop it escaping him. He’d once pushed one under the car when she’d used one like Maggie’s, Harper commented that she’d looked a right tit on all fours trying to find it so it didn’t end up going under the wheel arch when they set off. He’d put the idea in her head in the first place, he’d waited until she’d finally got her hands on the bowl before telling her he was only joking.
“So a nice easy start then?”
Maggie laughed a little before picking up the bowl and dropping it into the back along with the bottle. Charlie barked once before the hatch was closed.
“There are no easy starts love, not really.”
They shared a quick hug and then Maggie climbed into the car and started the engine. Lauri opened the back door of her little SUV and Fitz clambered in, flopping himself down on the cold black leather of the back seat. His tongue wet from the water and his saliva left shiny marks wherever he turned his head.
When she was in the car with the radio quietly playing some background noise Lauri waved to Maggie and watched her go. Before she drove out herself she again checked her messages and emails. There was one from Harper, Hey L – we got him! Ring me when you’re done. Love you. She had no other messages or voicemails, save an email offering discounted shoes.
Starting the car up Lauri drove out of the car park and turned right towards Kingswood and Summerhill. The sky was still bright and clear, on the radio the DJs were talking about nothing of consequence.
Down the road Harper was having a photograph taken with Alex Whitmore, putting pen to paper. When she got home Lauri poured herself a large glass of wine and again checked her messages; still nothing.
She took a deep breath, took a deep drink and then flopped down onto the sofa, snuggling down under the blanket throw in spite of the warmth of the late afternoon. At times like this she really regretted quitting smoking. She thumbed through her contacts, took another drink and fixed a smile on her face before pressing DIAL.
The phone rang three times before a familiar voice answered.
“Hi sweetie, did you get my text? Whitmore signed!”
“That’s great hon, that’s just… that’s just great.”
She kept the smile on her face throughout the conversation although it was an effort. Whitmore was fit but wasn’t up to speed so he’d start on the bench the following day. Oli Davies was neither fit nor up to speed so it would be touch and go whether he’d start, the only alternative was Cory Harvey freshly promoted to the U-23s. In defence he hadn’t made his mind up as to whether Rigg would play or not, that needed another conversation however Iacovitti and Gjokaj were nailed on to start. Further forward El Hadji Ba and Denis Ideniran were starting to form a workable partnership, one defensively minded and aggressive the other soft and supple with the technical flair. Thanoi would also likely start although his fitness wasn’t one hundred percent his skill with set pieces couldn’t be overlooked. McCootie he’d confirmed would be benched with Williams and Diallo playing wide of Sommerville through the centre. He hadn’t yet confirmed who’d wear the armband although due to his experience and recent performances Gjokaj was a potential candidate.
He’d iron it all out at first light. He wouldn’t be much longer and then he’d come straight back, likely home for seven or so and Harper would understand if she couldn’t wait for dinner and ate without him, he could always sort something small out when he got back.
Bath City announced the signings on Twitter and social media. Harper’s phone lit up, a text message from Ava – Glad to see you got your man! Come on you Romans! X
When she put the phone down on the call Lauri again checked her phone for messages or emails and then finished the wine glass. In his bed near the kitchen Fitz growled in his sleep. Lauri reached across to her right and plucked a tissue from the box, wiped the tear from her eye as it slid down her cheek. She couldn’t remember feeling so alone or so far from home.
Harper had set the alarm to go off early, dramatically early in Lauri’s opinion as they’d got into bed. He switched off the alarm on his mobile on its first ring through and kicked his legs out. In truth he’d barely slept and found himself still staring into the darkness as the phone lit up and the music started in earnest. Stepping over the sleeping dog beside the door to the bedroom he wandered down the landing and into the bathroom without flicking on the lights. First he hopped into the shower, quickly dragged a comb through his beard before finally brushing his teeth as Fitz padded into the bathroom to see why he was awake so early.
The team were to meet at Twerton Park, to catch the coach together over to Margate. They were due to leave at seven, aiming to arrive for roughly noon ahead of the kickoff at the usual time. Fitz watched disinterestedly as Harper towelled himself off before returning to the cushions on the floor of the bedroom. As the door opened slightly further at the touch of his nose Harper could just make out the sounds of Lauri breathing in her sleep.
Padding downstairs in bare feet, dressed in just a towel, Harper dropped a pod into the coffee machine on the counter and sourced a clean cup from the working top. Next he opened a paper bag on the side and took out an almond croissant which he slipped into the over to warm slightly. On the back of the sofa he’d left his clothes out for the day. As he dressed Harper ran through the team sheet in his head, he was mostly satisfied all in all. The majority of players following the pre-season picked themselves and while he still held reservations here and there he was more than confident in the squad’s ability to achieve their targets for the season ahead.
The croissant once warm was torn apart and buttered before he devoured it and the coffee with gusto at the little glass table. Finally he pulled his boots on and pushed his fingers through his hair; it was almost long enough now to get a little bobble in the back, pull it up into a bun. As an afterthought he deposited the cup and plate in the dishwasher and grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge, leaving it on the table beside his wallet and keys.
Before he left he snuck back into the bedroom, still in darkness, and left a note on the bedside table at Lauri’s side before leaving a kiss on her forehead. She rolled slightly in her sleep and half mumbled something. He smiled, gave Fitz a quick rub and a pat and then made his way back downstairs and out to the car, locking the door behind him.
The roads were deserted, as was the car park as Harper pulled up to Twerton Park. He unlocked the admin block door and flicked on the lights before making his way down the corridor to his office. He glanced up at the clock on the wall, 05:56. He always intended to be the first to arrive and the last to leave on match day, start out the way he meant to carry on. He just had time to give the scouting report a read through again before Chris Iwelumo and the rest of the coaching team arrived along with the transport. Gradually in dribs and drabs the players arrived, all wearing their training gear as requested and boarded the coach. The kit man loaded the playing kit into the underfloor storage and after the briefest words from Harper Bath City FC set off on the long drive to Margate.
On the drive across the country Harper read and re-read the training reports from his coaches alongside the scouting report. He shared a few words with Chris and just before nine his phone vibrated in his pocket. He brought up the message and smiled to himself.
Back in Bath Fitz had waited until he heard the door close before sneaking, as stealthily as a Dogue de Bordeaux can achieve, over to Harper’s side of the bed. On lumbering paws he gently eased his weight up onto the bed and burrowed gently into the covers, his warm furry back nestling snugly against Lauri’s thigh. When she woke up a few hours later the dog was contentedly filling the room with snores. She stretched, arching her back and then found her phone under her pillow. The message she typed to Harper was short and sincere, Good luck today with everything. Love you. See you after the game.
As she reached for her glasses from the bedside table next to her contact lens case she saw his note,
there’s an almond croissant in the kitchen just needs heating up a bit. Not sure what time we’ll be back from Margate but I’ll keep you in the loop. Chinese later?
Love you to the stars,
Oh, and tell Fitz to get out of the bed! X
Smiling happily she slid out of the bed and into the bathroom, leaving Fitz noisily snoring on Harper’s pillow.
The Gate played their football at Hartsdown Park, a rather run down stadium with an artificial pitch and temporary prefab buildings serving as facilities; the place made Twerton Park look like a palace. The old stands had been torn down with redevelopment planned ten years before which, due to finances mostly, never materialised. Now the artificial pitch held 300 seats in a temporary stand, scaffolding and plastic seats with no creature comforts to speak of. Even a roof was missing from the offering.
The away team were given one prefab building, a portacabin more at home on building sites and the like than as an office come dressing room. As the players made themselves home and began to store their kit and clobber Harper stretched his legs and walked out to the edge of the pitch. Advertising hoardings listed scaffolders and local builders, a hotel and a local taxi firm along with a butcher and a lawyer’s office. The fans such as there were stood behind the barriers, barely separated from the action. These were the pitches he’d become used to with his U-16s and academy players, while it could have caused consternation in some to Harper this was home.
The players when dressed and ready, marshalled by Chris and the coaches, took to the field and began to run through their exercises and warm up routines while Harper dropped the team sheet in to the official’s portacabin in person. All through pre-season they’d conducted the pre-game the same way; first warm up and stretches, a few runs and shuttles, position specific run-throughs with tackle drills, interception and heading drills for the defensive players, passing and shooting drills for the forwards and a mix for the midfield players. After that a quick five minute sprints and runs exercise again then back to the changing room to change such as it was for the team talk.
Harper was passionate in his delivery and forceful in his expectations. Margate were relegation fodder, pure and simple – the stadium if nothing else gave that away – whereas Bath had hopes and aspirations, they were on the upward swing. If not this year then next they’d be looking at promotion. Personally he was inclined to target it now and see how high they could reach. He told them that if they played their natural game, didn’t get too bogged down overthinking things or trying too hard then the result would come. He told his defenders that they knew what he expected of them and for his midfield he told them that he had faith in them being the right players for the job. To his forward line he again stated that they just needed to relax and let the game come to them, just play and see where it took them.
He left it until the death before announcing the captain for the game, following a stellar pre-season and already becoming a popular face around Twerton Park Harper found it very easy to name Valentin Gjokaj the captain. The decision was a popular one, as Harper had suspected it would be.
An official knocked on the door almost immediately and the message was relayed through – it was go time. The players stood up, some jumped or stretched but as the door was opened again they all confidently strode out to the pitch with Gjokaj leading the way. The fans that had made the trip cheered them out; all in all probably 400 fans were in attendance from both teams Harper would guess. He shook hands with his opposite number, exchanged a few words with one or two of the players and coaches and made his way to the dugout.
Margate’s manager wore the traditional coaches’ outfit of tracksuit and drill top. Most of the coaches on both teams wore similar attire. Harper by contrast wore dark grey jeans and a black hoodie with the Bath City logo embossed above the breast. Unlike the very formal or artificially casual track or training gear he dressed how he was comfortable, he was dressed like a fan. Today his blood ran black and white.
The team as they lined up was the strongest Harper was able to field. With O’Leary injured and Oli Davies not quite up to full fitness or speed yet Cory Harvey, fresh from impressing in pre-season, would start in goal with Davies on the bench. The back four would be composed of Ball and Rigg, Gjokaj and Iacovitti. Harper had chewed out Rigg over the sending off, while he had his reservations the versatile Rigg was best suited to fill the role being asked of him. El Hadji Ba, Andi Thanoi and Denis Ideniran would run the engine room with Ba playing the role of the pivot between defence and midfield. The front three remained unchanged with Williams on the left, Diallo on the right and Sommerville through the middle.
Margate were expected to line up in a fairly standard and straightforward 4-4-2. Fullbacks would play like fullbacks, wingers would play like wingers and strikers would not be expected to link up play or do anything too adventurous. It was formations like that which Harper had loved playing against as a centre back; easy to read, easy to follow and ultimately easy to anticipate. He’d drilled the players, his coaches had drilled the players; everyone knew what to expect and everyone knew their own place in the overall structure and formation.
The fullbacks would both play as wingbacks, offering something to the forward face of the game. The centre backs were both simply asked to be defensive in their duties, no running with the ball or linking play – break it up and get it clear. The ball winning midfielder in the hole would ease distribution from the back but in truth his role was more about playing spoiler for the other team. Ahead of him the midfield pairing would support the forward line, diving into the box late to pounce on opportunities as they arose and Thanoi would take responsibility for the deadballs when needed. Williams and Diallo in the wider forward positions would drop back to link the play with midfield, spread wide if needed to support the fullbacks and appear at the back post in any crossing situation. Sommerville would lead the line – the point of the spear as Harper was fond of saying.
As the match kicked off Harper let his eyes drift across the crowd. There weren’t a lot of them but there was a noted presence of black and white stripes in amongst the blue of Margate.
The first attack came shortly after the onset, with Rigg running down the flank. He outpaced Ben Swift of Margate, broke a tackle from Jake Phillips and whipped in an early cross. Sommerville jumped but was beaten in the air, the defenders cleared and the attack came to nothing, going out for a throw in. Still there was reason to be optimistic.
The game was thoroughly one sided in the first half; Margate simply couldn’t account for the five man press which came with each Bath City attack while their own 4-4-2 was easily countered.
With half time rapidly approaching the deadlock was finally broken. As the referee’s watch ticked onto forty one minutes El Hadji Ba intercepted a loose pass across the centre circle. He found Ideniran first time who lifted a pass over the heads of the middle line, picking out George Rigg advancing into open space. The defenders committed, racing out to close him down and as they approached he slid the ball past to Diallo hanging off the shoulder of the last man. He turned him, collected possession and with the keeper rushing out flicked an audacious chip over his head. The ball had chance to bounce just once inside the six yard box before rebounding up into the roof of the empty net!
In the dressing room at half time he kept it short and sweet, love your work and long may it continue! The formation had Margate confused and somewhat rattled, the centre backs kept being dragged out of position to follow the roaming wide forwards leaving gaps and spaces for others to exploit. All in all the Famous Five inspired formation was doing exactly as he’d hoped, limited only by the ability of those asked to play in unfamiliar roles.
The second half was much the same. Margate made changes early on, bringing on another midfielder in place of a striker, dropping into a 4-5-1 packing out the midfield in the hopes of stemming the tide. It did not.
The attacks continued unabated, with shots from Sommerville and Williams, Diallo and Ideniran – even El Hadji Ba took the chance to attempt a scorcher from all of thirty yards, shooting high of the goal but not by far with the keeper in no man’s land. As the legs out on the field tired Harper called the subs and issued changes. Williams came off in exchange for McCootie, Thanoi came off to be replaced by Artus and in defence a slight reshuffle saw Iacovitti move to left back and Alex Whitmore slot into the heart of defence as Ball left the field.
Eventually the referee blew for time. Margate were restricted to two shots and only one of those on target. For their part Bath had thirty two attempts on goal and dominated possession. The only aspect Harper had reason to be disappointed over was that only one chance was converted. Rather than raise that in the dressing room however he let the players have their moment. Diallo was named man of the match and Bath City were on their way.
One game played, one game won. As he left the players to shower and change he went outside to catch some air. The fans had begun to depart the ground and impulsively he drew to one side and then ducked out into the crowd, walking with the Bath fans as they celebrated their victory on the fifteen minute walk back to the train station. Some left the throng to get their cars, a handful climbed into a minibus but as Harper walked with the fans and joined in the songs he felt completely at home. His heart was beating black and white.
As he approached the station he held back from the group and then turned to head back to the ground. He pulled his phone from his pocket, three messages.
The first from Lauri, Get in! Can’t wait for you to get home, celebratory dinner? Love you x
The second from Chris, Where’ve you gone? He smiled and thumbed down to the third message.
Great result but should have been four or five, at least according to my dad! Can you make a little time for me this week? X
He tapped out a quick reply as he walked quickly back towards the ground and the waiting coach, Sure I can, when are you free Ava? x
The turn around between games was short, only three days. The coach trip back to Bath had been one of laughter and excitement from the players, the coaches tried to temper the enthusiasm to a degree but they had earned the right with their road win. Harper hadn’t explained his absence at the end of the game, simply saying he’d gone to get some air. A few of the coaches and one or two of the players he was sure could understand where he’d really been.
One of the coaches spent the match in the stand to film the game, a recording of which sat on the pen drive in Harper’s pocket. He also had several pages of scribbled notes he’d torn from various notepads thrust in his other pocket. He was happy for the most part but his mind was already beginning to turn to the next game, Weston-Super-Mare, the coming Tuesday night.
It was nearly ten thirty when Harper pulled up outside his house. Fitz barely raised his head when Harper came inside and stepped over him. Lauri was curled up on the sofa, next to her lay a Chinese takeaway menu and one of her many sketch books. She must have been asleep for a while as the cup of tea on the coffee table was stone cold.
He moved the pencils and pad from the seat and sat down, leafing through the menu as he absently rested his arm on her leg. He toyed with waking her, to talk to her about the win, about the day. In the end he decided to let her sleep, she’d been tired and it was perhaps best to let her doze. Instead he pulled his laptop from his bag, plugged in the USB stick and began to review the game. By the time the half time whistle blew Harper’s snores mirrored Lauri’s.
“Thanks for seeing me, I know you’ll be busy with preparations.”
“Not at all Ava, not at all – always happy to make time for you.”
The two of them were again in Harper’s office. A hot mug of coffee sat in front of Harper, a sweet tea next to Ava. She tapped a pen on her notepad and shuffled slightly in her seat as they exchanged pleasantries. With the game only one day removed and the next on the immediate horizon the white board in his room was full of squiggles and scribbles, scouts notes were in folders on the desk, a rudimentary team sheet and running order were even on display. Between the mugs the red light of the Dictaphone blinked, counting seconds. Ava’s eyes consumed as much as they dared before turning their gaze firmly on the grizzled Irishman before her.
“The performance first off then, happy with how it turned out?”
“Very much so, it could easily have been a lot more comfortable but the way we played and the way we performed really made me happy.” He took a mouthful of his coffee and smiled at her, “A lot to build on.”
Harper admitted they’d been rather profligate at times and wasteful in the final third. He was impressed with the speed and ease with which they cycled defence into attack and was happy with the number, if not perhaps the quality of the chances they’d created.
“You raised a lot of eyebrows with the formation, you seemed to play very narrow with only the fullbacks providing any width. Was that intentional? Won’t that potentially leave you exposed on the counter?”
Harper took a breath before answering, holding Ava’s gaze with his own.
“Last season we played a flat 4-4-2 and didn’t even achieve midtable obscurity. This team wants more than basic football, the board want more, I want more and the fans want more. Sure, attacking play can leave you a little exposed at times – that’s part of the difficulty in balancing things out. But by playing on the front foot, by taking the initiative and creating chances we give ourselves the best possible chance to score goals.” He realised he was sitting forward in his chair and forced himself to relax and sit deeper into the seat. Regaining his composure he continued, “Come back at the end of the season, sit right there and you can tell me if we’d have been better placed rolling out a true and tested 4-4-2 or something a little more creative.”
“I think I’ll hold you to that Mister Tanner.”
They talked about the planned improvements to the training facilities and Harper’s relationship with Paul Williams. They spoke briefly about the backroom team Harper was assembling and also on his transfer policy, spending money arguably that the club would find difficult to find without support from outside or from success on the field. Harper was quite straight in his response.
“Look, we want to succeed and we want to achieve. That’s why I’m here and that’s why the board have trusted me with the budget they have. The signings aren’t just for today or tomorrow, they’re there for next year, for where this club is going. Sure we could have just signed players out of contract, we could rely on free agents and guys chewed and spat out by other clubs – and we will – but we also need to be proactive in our approach and if we identify someone who can really help us achieve success then we need to jump on it. We need to jump on them. Surely you can agree with that?”
Her eyes smiled, mischief plainly on show.
“Oh I think I can understand that certainly.”
The rest of the interview was quite straight forward; Ava asked about the preparations for Weston-Super-Mare; she asked about whether the tactics would change or remain the same; she asked about squad harmony and expectations ahead of the game. All in all the answers were passionate and well intentioned, as the interview came to a close and Harper walked her out they could hear the sounds of studded boots walking the corridor down to the tunnel and out onto the pitch. They paused as Harper opened the door to the car park and Ava adjusted the strap of her bag on her shoulder.
She moved a stray hair from her face, tucking it behind her ear and offered Harper her hand.
“Thanks again for agreeing to meet me and for the frank interview, I find you refreshing company Harper, you’re not like a lot of the managers I speak to.”
“And you’re not like most of the journalists I’ve spoken to. Good bye Ava, you drive safe now and I’ll see you soon.”
“You can count on it.” She grinned at him, her eyes twinkling slightly and she turned to head towards her car.
Harper for his part turned on his heel and headed back inside, continued down the corridor and out onto the pitch for training. With Weston-Super-Mare two days away he needed to make sure that everyone knew the expectations on them. He assigned a little extra time in shooting drills following the wasteful showing in front of goal against Margate.
Once training was finished he returned to his office and dropped Lauri a message, Hey hun, how did you get on today? X
He received an almost instant reply, Think I’ve found a studio! Tell you when you get home. x
Inkspiration – hardly an inspired name ironically but still it was a start. The owner and lead artist, a gruff man in his early fifties by the name of Ian Rennie looked rather like an extra from Sons of Anarchy. Or a henchman in a Batman film. He was a little over average height with hands like shovels which, despite his paunch and clear evidence of a labourer’s past were surprisingly dexterous.
Lauri had contacted them on a whim, seeing some of his artwork in a tattoo magazine while thumbing through for ideas and motivation. The piece she’d seen was a large back piece, borrowing from Japanese kabuki and the art of ukiyo-e of Hokusai and similar. It was detailed, clear and precise – waves crashing over the head of a girl sitting in a boat, with blossom in her hair, a tanto dagger balanced on her folded legs. Lauri had barely skimmed the article but on seeing the studio was only forty minutes away on the outskirts of Bristol she’d instantly reached for her phone.
Her sketch pad she’d bundled into the car, along with the photo book of her favourite and proudest pieces – a snapshot of her life as a tattoo artist. They’d met between sittings, a twenty minute window of peace between his booked slots. It was safe to say his diary was rather full. There was another artist working there, a twenty something guy named Kenyon who specialised in the traditional Sailor Jerry style. They flipped through her sketches and her sample book, spoke about her portfolio and why she was looking for a chair. Lauri’s style was rather different, it had been described as trash polka but she liked to call it dirty polka, a blend of black and red inks, realistic and eye catching. It was certainly something new for Inkspiration to add to the artist portfolio.
At the end of the conversation Ian had offered her a chair, in the short term while she built up a client base. He’d charge her a rent for the chair but in a month or two they could sit down and discuss commission or some other arrangement. Either way Lauri had found her seat, and she couldn’t be happier about it.
Harper heard all this in snippets, hurried and jumbled due to her palpable excitement. She’d hammered instagram and social media, publicising her new venue and gave a big plug to the studio. For their part they were heavily pushing her as a new artist in residence, trying to drive footfall and traffic to the studio. In only a couple of hours she’d had her first three bookings, one for Thursday and two for the Saturday. She’d told Ian she’d be happy to cover the walk-ins too, depending on the style they were after.
Harper listened intently, taking in her words and translating what he could out of tattoo-speak into something more manageable. In the last couple of weeks they hadn’t had a lot of time together, with him running training and spending so much time at Twerton Park organising and sorting the back office, reading through scout reports and watching game tape he’d been rather more busy than either of them had grown used to. Lauri for her part had been hitting the streets, visiting studios and talking to people in the industry or spending time walking Fitz and trying to reassure herself that this all wasn’t an awful mistake. A firmer foundation had been needed it was safe to say – for both of them really – and Harper was enjoying the vibrancy that she’d got from her news. When she smiled she could light up a room, tonight she was back to how she used to be.
He didn’t mention meeting with Ava, to be honest it hadn’t occurred to him. When his phone went off as the two of them ate later that night he read the message, smiled and switched it off then popped it back into his pocket.
He dismissed her query, “Just a journalist, asking about the next game. I’ll reply tomorrow.”
Tonight was for them; Harper, Lauri and Fitz. After they’d eaten they curled up together on the sofa, watched a terrible film and then went to bed early.
The next day training was fairly routine. Harper had a message early on that O’Leary was to be recalled by Bristol following his injury. He’d expected it and when he broke the news Max was disappointed but understood the reasons. He hadn’t been at the club long but had been at Twerton Park long enough to make a few friends; he assured one or two of them that he’d be in the stands for the Weston-Super-Mare game the following evening and then said his goodbyes.
It was odd in a way seeing O’Leary leave the club. He’d joined for first team exposure and now that little injury would prevent him from getting it until much later on in the year, if not in fact next year. Harper had seen a lot of injuries over the years, not least of all his own but seeing a serious one for such a young and promising player always gave him cause to pause and reflect.
Harper’s intended team for the following day was formed and fixed in his mind. It wouldn’t be all that different to the team that played a few days earlier. The fitness levels in the team were picking up nicely and the subtleties of the formation were beginning to come more easily now.
Now that they were becoming more familiar with the 4-3-3 variant he decided to shake things up a little in the second part of the day. They rolled out a three man defence in the training game, three centre backs with the wing backs pushed very high – even higher than usual – operating almost as fully fledged wingers. He sacrificed the water carrier to accommodate the extra centre back and both midfielders were asked to play box to box, a tiring but efficient use of their talents. Chris had the U-23s attack and attack and attack, trying to break down the three man defence while Harper asked the main team purely to counter and soak pressure. All in all the players seemed to enjoy it, it was a change of pace from the usual formation and had potential to add another string to their bow should they need it. Harper and Chris pencilled in a little time going forward to solidify the formation in the minds of the players. It wouldn’t be the first choice formation but might be used here and there in the season to come.
When game day finally arrived Harper was excited. The morning passed at a bracing pace and Weston-Super-Mare arrived at Twerton Park just before five for the seven thirty kick off. He read and re-read the scouting report, read and re-read his coaching reports. On the white board in his office he wrote and erased the team line up a handful of times, his nervous energy not letting him rest. This would be the first game in front of the home fans and he was anxious to make a good impression.
Eventually he left it up and put the pen and board wipe in his drawer to keep them away from his itching fingers. Davies in goal, Riggs at right back, Iacovitti at left back, Whitmore and Gjokaj in the centre of defence; El Hadji Ba in as the anchor, Thanoi and Ideniran centre mid; Williams, Diallo and Sommerville as the front three. The armband would remain with Gjokaj for this game and, in fairness, for the foreseeable.
About five Chris Iwelumo knocked on his door and then made his way inside. He wore a training top and tracksuit bottoms, like most of the coaching staff his initials were embroidered above the breast.
“Afternoon gaffer, all set? Got a minute?”
“Aye Chris, sit down – what do you need?”
Chris settled into the chair and looked around the office, an untouched mug of coffee sat cold amongst the papers next to Harper’s computer.
“I’ve heard a bit of talk about Riggsy, wasn’t sure if you’d heard?”
Harper hadn’t heard anything. George Rigg had played all of pre-season as the default right back, a role he’d carried out in the first game against Margate. The season before he’d spent most of his time in centre mid, a versatile utility player able to turn his hand to most defensive or offensive duties and roles.
“He’s said a few things – not to me so take this as you find it – but he’s not exactly happy at the moment. He’s not mentioned it exactly to the coaches but he’s not enjoying the training he’s doing, he’s been a bit off with a few of the lads too. Might be something, might be nothing but a few of the lads seem to think he’s a bit pissed off at the minute.”
“Any idea why?” Harper had a theory but wanted confirmation.
“Not sure, like I say its second hand but just wanted to see if you’d heard anything.”
The two spoke a little more, touched on a few topics both personal and professional and then as the clock ticked round both of them made their way out of the office and out to meet the players. The players arrived in dribs and drabs but all were on site by six. They got changed into their kits and training tops and headed out onto the pitch for a warm up and a look around prior to the game.
Harper watched his charges warming up and in the other half he cast an eye over Weston-Super-Mare. As he did so he pulled his phone out and snapped a couple of pictures before tapping out a message to Lauri. Just on the pitch for warm up, you still coming tonight? X
A few moments later his pocket vibrated and he read the message. She was in the stand with Maggie; Maggie said hi. He smiled and glanced around; picking them out in the crowd he waved, trying his best to make it look casual. Inside he was a jangling ball of nerves.
In the dressing room before kick off Harper calmly told the players to just be themselves, to play their football and the result would come. He told the defence that he had faith in them, told the midfield that they had the ability to control the game and told his forward line that he expected big things. Chris cast in his two pence and then it was time to start.
The PA system had been solidly playing fairly standard background music for the last hour or so, nothing too insistent – a lot of middle of the road music. Now however it started to build in power and volume, a thumping heart beat overlaid on an ambient base. The referee shook his hand and the hand of his opposite number, Ryan Northmore a former player of Weston-Super-Mare, Bath City and the now defunct Team Bath. Harper and Ryan also shook hands and wished each other luck. As the referee started to lead them out of the tunnel the PA burst into full voice, blasting out – at the request of Harper – Back in Black by AC/DC.
As the team in their black and white stripes ran on Harper made his way to the dugout, watching the crowd and his players. He’d said to Lauri in the build up after he’d made the decision that if AC/DC doesn’t get your blood pumping they might as well not even bother.
Standing in the dugout, his hands in the pocket of his hoodie and listening to the throbbing, pulsing energy of the song and the thrum of the crowd Harper wanted with every fibre of his being to be out on the pitch himself, kicking every ball, chasing every tackle. When the whistle finally blew to start the match Chris and the coaching team sat down on the hard bench under the plexiglass dugout. Harper remained standing for the entire match, three feet from the touchline – as close as he was allowed to go.
Despite only three days since the previous game his team picked up exactly where they left off, with energy levels to spare. Just like the baseline of the entrance song his team beat a tattoo upon Weston-Super-Mare’s goal mouth. Three attempts – good attempts – in the first five minutes all drew corners but unfortunately with no reward. The pace was frenetic, Weston-Super-Mare finding themselves penned in their own half and struggling to find an outlet due to the work of El Hadji Ba in cutting out and intercepting the forward play.
In the twenty fourth minute George Rigg advanced down the right and cut in just beyond the centre circle, he brought the ball ten or fifteen metres into the middle of the field and then looped a cross field ball over the heads of the advancing Weston-Super-Mare players. The weighted pass picked out Jason Williams at the edge of the area who chested it down to his feet, advanced a single step and with his left hooked the ball into the middle of the box where Sommerville – unmarked – was waiting for it. With the goal at his mercy he sent his header low and to the right, beating the helpless goalkeeper and just inside the post; one – nil.
Twerton Park exploded into sound and thunder, the crowd roared, the PA burst into music and the players ran to celebrate. Harper roared himself and then restrained himself, lowering his arms and walking back to the dugout to celebrate a little more privately with his coaching team. He wanted to jump and whoop and run to the players but he resisted, that could come later; he glanced across to Ryan Northmore in the other dugout, a picture of frustration. Catching he eye he nodded and acknowledged the nod in return, it cost nothing to maintain a level of respect between the managers and while Harper remained standing for the rest of the half he tried to remember that as the game ticked round to half time.
In the second half Harper watched his side strike the woodwork twice inside fifteen minutes; once from a Thanoi free kick at the edge of the D and once from a corner, a header from Whitmore striking the crossbar before deflecting over for a goal kick. Weston-Super-Mare’s best spell came around the seventieth minute where they managed two attempts on goal and on target, both easily dealt with by Oli Davies, wearing his red goalkeeping jersey. Why Swansea had let him go was a mystery to Harper, but he wasn’t complaining.
As legs tired Harper made the changes, pulling Whitmore for Ball and shuffling Iacovitti into the centre of defence. He replaced Ideniran for Murphy and held back his third substitution in case he needed it later on. As the fourth official held up the board for time to be added on, a whole two minutes, Harper gave the goal scorer Sommerville his own personal applause, bringing him off in favour of McCootie.
The full time whistle was met with celebrations in the crowd and on the pitch. Two games down and two wins. The stats were heavily in Bath’s favour, twenty three attempts on goal to Weston-Super-Mare’s four and twelve on target to their two. Harper guided his players to the changing room, shook hands with Ryan Northmore and then nipped out the back door and into the car park, again mingling with the fans as they left. A few people glanced at him, gave a double take wondering if it was the manager mingling with the fans as headed home or to the pub or wherever. He remained with the throng for a few minutes before returning to Twerton Park.
Two down, quite a few still to go. If nothing else the fans were warming to the style of football and the coaches he’d faced thus far didn’t have an answer. He wouldn’t have to wait that long for the next opponent and his chance to make it three from three. Regardless he was sure he’d made the right call in moving south and in amongst the crowd Lauri was beginning to feel it too.
St Albans City, managed by Ian Allinson, were next to test the waters at Twerton Park. The four day break between games again gave Harper and his team chance to drill the squad in their alternate formation. He was painfully aware that the squad lacked the subtleties to really make the most of the back three and high pressing wingbacks but it would be an option none the less, something to keep up their sleeve just in case.
For the majority of the training sessions he had the team split into their sections, working on role specific drills before coming back together to work on cohesion and teamwork. He again took the opportunity to broach the subject of becoming fully professional and truly full time with Paul Williams. With only having some of the coaches full time and some of the players semi-professional there were restrictions on how far the methods he wanted to employ could be pushed. Again Paul was sympathetic to Harper’s case but reiterated that next season would be the time, at the level they were operating at there just wasn’t the funding to justify it.
Lauri had been more herself which was at least something. Her first couple of days at the studio had been quiet but quite exciting. She’d completed her first few pieces and while the other artists were welcoming and friendly she was made acutely aware that the majority of demand for her time in the short term would be for “off the shelf” tattoos, picked out of the design books on site as opposed to allowing her to create something unique and more in keeping with her artistic temperament. Still, she was confident that it’d come once her reputation around the area was a little more assured.
On the Thursday Harper had watched George Rigg closely through training. He went through the drills calmly and quietly; the tackle drill passed without incident and the tracking and chasing drills again were uneventful. He wasn’t as bright and attentive perhaps as he had been earlier in the pre-season but it wasn’t necessarily something that concerned him at this stage either. He filed that one under the heading “To Monitor” and continued on with the training.
That evening he went home and accompanied Lauri to walk Fitz, heading down through her now customary route down along the waterways on the outskirts of the city. They walked hand in hand for a little over an hour, talking about nothing of consequence then let Fitz lead them home for an evening for bad films and ribs, slow cooked in barbeque sauce with grilled corn and potato salad.
As Harper dozed on the sofa with Lauri snuggled up against him she doodled quietly and happily in her sketch pad, a roman gladiator tearing through the page – his mouth open, roaring a challenge from beneath his blood spattered helmet. His right arm raised, a sword blade thrusting out menacingly and on his armour the familiar crest of black and white stripes topped with castellated red.
The next day dawned bright and clear; Friday the 12th, the day before game three. Once at Twerton Park Harper sat down with Gjokaj in his office. They spoke briefly about the last few games and the impact Valentin had had on the squad and the team they were building. Harper had intended to rotate the captaincy, to keep several options for the armband but from the end of pre-season and through the matches with Margate and Weston-Super-Mare he’d changed his opinion. Valentin Gjokaj would be the permanent captain of the club, the focal point on the pitch. It would be to him that Harper would divest responsibility and through him that any issues or concerns could be raised quietly, away from more formal channels.
Harper had enjoyed being captain although for much of his career he’d only rarely worn the armband permanently. At lower levels he’d worn the armband and revelled in the role, guiding and supporting his team mates, championing their causes and fighting their battles. Often when playing at the larger clubs his skill level didn’t offer him the same level of opportunity so he’d been a voice in the dressing room instead, a leader without being the captain. It was in this that Harper saw a kindred spirit in Gjokaj and the big Albanian was only too happy to accept it.
Before he left, Harper asked him to keep an eye on Riggs, to see if there was an issue brewing and if it needed a quiet word off the books. Once left alone in his office Harper leafed through the coaches’ reports on the squad and then began to filter through his emails and messages. When he left to get a refill on his coffee and returned a copy of the Non-League Paper had been left on his desk along with the rest of the day’s post. He quickly opened and read the letters – mostly junk mail of one variety or another – and then skimmed the newspaper briefly.
The midweek match report on Bath was rather supportive of the style of football on display by Bath. The piece was small, tucked away midway through the section documenting life in the Conference South and North. El Hadji Ba received particular notice, highlighting his impact and making much of the sweeping attacking strokes that had characterised the first two games of the campaign. The author suggested a degree of profligacy in the front three which might come back to haunt Bath in the latter stages of the season unless it was addressed however on the whole the piece was full of praise. The author wasn’t a name Harper was familiar with, Kevin Coney.
Putting aside the paper he tapped out a message on his phone, Are you covering the St Albans game Saturday? Or don’t you love us anymore? X
The reply came as Harper began watching the game tape of St Alban’s last match, a one all draw against Eastbourne Borough.
I’ll be there with bells on – gotta love a Roman! ;p X
The morning of Saturday the 13th passed slowly, by the time the teams were together and ready for kick off Harper was champing at the bit. The Saints had brought a little over a hundred fans with them down the M4. Harper’s team sheet again was a picture of consistency, with an unchanged line up of Davies, Rigg, Gjokaj, Whitmore, Iacovitti, El Hadji Ba, Ideniran, Thanoi, Williams, Sommerville and Diallo. Gjokaj took the honour of leading the team out, once more to Back in Black and Harper took up his usual spot, in hoodie and jeans as always, at the very edge of the allowable area.
St Albans took the kick off and then the match settled into a somewhat familiar routine as they struggled to deal with the five man press of Bath. By the tenth minute St Albans had seen three shots from the edge of the area and a fourth – a headed attempt by Sommerville – glanced wide from about ten yards out. Through the next five minutes St Albans cleared their lines only to be hemmed back in time and again.
The deadlock was finally broken on the thirty seventh minute; a fumbled clearance from a corner brought the ball out only as far as Rigg loitering some thirty yards out. He pinged a beautiful diagonal back into the box, Diallo chested it down for himself at the edge of the six yard box before turning and drilling a low drive across the face of goal. The defenders did nothing, the goalkeeper watched it pass him and at the back post Jason Williams had the easiest of tap-ins from less than four yards.
For the next ten minutes St Albans tried to steady the ship, launching their first attack of the half following a break down the right flank. The cross such as it was curled into the box, delivered on the diagonal before the fullbacks or EHB could intercept. The ball, a high looping cross field dropped at the penalty spot where Oli Davies rose highest to pluck it out of the air. He held the ball only a moment or two before throwing out to Ideniran, tracking back deep to assist and offer the option.
As the half time whistle came Bath were up by a goal but they could easily have had three or four. Harper stressed the important of taking time with the shots, of making sure to hit the target. The defence were playing excellent, the midfield was creating the opportunities but the front three had to do a better job of making those chances count. He didn’t want another game with thirty attempts and only a single goal.
St Albans made changes at half time, new signing David Noble introduced into the middle of the park to pack the midfield with five at the expense of a forward. The 4-5-1 had a rigidity which the 4-4-2 had lacked, the added width making life difficult for the flying wingbacks of Bath reducing the space for them to operate. It did also render them rather toothless and while the pace of the attacks slowed Bath maintained their dominance throughout the half.
As was becoming standard Harper cycled changes at the sixtieth and seventieth minutes, allowing time on the field for McCootie and Murphey. Following a rather anonymous spell in the second half George Rigg also made way allowing Dan Ball to take to the field.
The last ten minutes were a rather dire affair as Bath launched several more fruitless attacks either cut out by the defence and goalkeeper or wasted high or wide of the target. The full time whistle brought the affair to a close and while the players and fans celebrated their perfect start to the season the wastefulness of their attack was remarked upon. Bath had got the important goal that decided the tie and had dominated the game; the only question was why couldn’t they translate it into more than a single goal.
After his usual walk with the fans Harper returned to his office, had a small glass of whiskey with his opposite number and then set his mind to the task of converting chances to goals. As the last of the players left the stadium Harper locked his office and went out to his car. It was already a little after seven, Lauri would be expecting him home shortly. He pressed the fob on his keys, opened the boot and tossed his bag in before stepping round to the driver’s side.
As his hand reached out for the handle he heard a warm voice behind him that stopped him still.
“So Mr Tanner, have you time for a post match exclusive with me?”
It was late when Harper got back home. He pulled his car up on the drive and unlocked the front door, quietly slipping into the house and out of his shoes. As he padded through the kitchen he glanced at the hob, a large bake tray half covered in a tea towel sat beneath the fan light. Fitz was no where to be seen in the kitchen and his bed was empty. As Harper walked through into the living room he found him, curled up snoring with his head on Lauri’s thigh.
Lauri lay on the sofa, her head on the armrest snuggled under a blanket. On the floor in front of her a couple of magazines and a cold half drunk mug described her evening. Harper stood and watched her for a moment or two, her chest rising and falling as she slept. The reality of a sleeping partner is never as romantic as theatre or Hollywood would have you believe; her glasses had half slid up her face, her cheek smushed against her hand, her lips half open half pursed – pressed as she slept fitfully.
Harper had managed to go back out to the car and collect his kitbag and various notepads before Lauri stirred. In sitting in the armchair opposite them Harper disturbed the dog somewhat, seeing or sensing movement Fitz raised his head, wagged his tail strongly and then resettled his head down on Lauri. As Harper hushed the dog his wife opened her eyes slowly.
“You’re home late.” It wasn’t a question and it wasn’t a statement, it lay somewhere between the two.
“Just a reporter, post game stuff you know how it is.”
She pulled her legs out from under the dog, wrapped the blanket tighter around her shoulders and straightened her glasses. Her hair was wild and projected at angles; she’d bleached the tips again, adding a few flecks of ice blonde to the black and pink ensemble.
“Have you eaten?”
“I picked something up on the way; I didn’t think you’d mind.”
She nodded noncommittally and looked up at the TV – the program she’d fallen asleep to was long finished. She stared at it for a couple of seconds, some vapid reality show before turning her gaze back to Harper.
“Didn’t you think to let me know?”
Harper sat silently. He had no response to her.
“Whatever,” Lauri got up from the sofa, the cream woollen blanket a cloak around her shoulders. “I’m going to bed. Fitz still needs a walk so I’ll see you in the morning.”
Harper had taken Ava back into his office. He’d left her there and gone to the kitchen himself to make them both a coffee, returning a couple of minutes later with mugs and a packet of choc-chip cookies to find her sat in the chair with her jacket off and draped over her bag. They talked about the game for all of five minutes without a Dictaphone or notepad in sight while they made a start on the drinks.
She’d mentioned to Harper that her dad was a life long supporter of Bath City so he asked her about him. Her dad, Graham was retired now and attended as many games as he could. Since his wife, Ava’s mother, had passed away the club had been something of a surrogate family for him – he even volunteered at the community events the club ran. He’d been the one who’d given Ava the appetite for football and when she decided to follow a career in journalism it was to his great passion that she found herself directed towards.
Harper told Ava about growing up in South Dublin, about what he remembered of the Troubles and feeling that it all seemed so far away – like another country. He loved football from the day he first kicked a ball and was scouted as a twelve year old by Hibs in Edinburgh. He hadn’t moved immediately, playing in Irish leagues and youth competitions until he was fifteen and then finally he moved to Scotland with his older brother, Darragh. His mum and dad hadn’t moved over when he did, in fact Harper hadn’t actually spoken to his parents for nine years – not since Darragh’s funeral.
It had been tough being away, tough at first at least. Football was supposed to be the answer to his prayers, he was going to be the next Liam Brady, at least that’s what he’d hoped. In truth his career had been a far more prosaic affair, cut short by injury following a rather mediocre amount of success. But it wasn’t just football that had changed him, Scotland had changed him. He’d grown up a lot in a short space of time living with his brother and while Ava could appreciate some of it there was a lot that Harper chose not to share.
When Harper looked up at the clock on the wall he realised they’d been talking contentedly for an hour.
“Sorry, look at me rabbiting on – we were supposed to be giving you an exclusive.”
“No, Mister Tanner, it was very informative.” Ava bit her lip playfully, almost holding back a slight chuckle. “Well I don’t know about you but I’m famished, I know a lovely little place – quiet, lovely food – it really isn’t all that far. Come on, my treat. You can tell me more about the real Harper Tanner over something a little more substantial than coffee and a cookie.”
After Lauri had headed up to bed Harper dug out the little green bags and the lead and harness for Fitz. The big dog sat rather sombrely as the leather straps were buckled and clipped around his shoulders and chest and then finally they were ready. Grabbing his keys back from the kitchen counter where he’d left them on entering the two of them headed out into the dark locking the door behind them.
Fitz sniffed at the air as they started the walk out away from the houses and towards the darkness of the country. As they walked Harper played over the events of the day in his mind; not just the game but the meal with Ava.
She’d offered at first to drive but then agreed it was probably more sensible for him to follow her in his own car. The drive hadn’t taken all that long, probably fifteen minutes or so in truth. As they were seated in a little booth and table towards the back of the restaurant Harper had chance to look around. It was a small almost certainly family run Italian, a little place called Marco’s. The walls were rough stone, partially plastered and painted with fading frescos – like a postcard of old Romanesque villas half restored. Ivy grew up the inside of the wall surrounding the opening to the kitchen, wide enough to watch everything transpiring in the stainless steel grotto. Terracotta looking tiles encircled the pass-through and everything smelled of garlic and warmth and love.
The booth they’d been shown to was cosy and inviting, a little oil light candle burned inside a round wooden holder and within minutes of sitting down a small bowl of olives, bread and oil was placed on the edge between them. Ava didn’t stand on ceremony, when the waiter passed she spoke to him quickly in fluent Italian. Mid sentence she’d glanced across at Harper to gauge his reaction before finishing. The waiter thanked them both and then headed off towards the kitchen.
“I hope you don’t mind me ordering, I thought just a few picky bits and if you want something else later well, you hopefully won’t be too full.” Her eyes were more than a little mischievous. Harper wasn’t certain if it was hot in the restaurant or if it was just him.
The conversation as they waited for food drifted around the past; Ava had been born and brought up in Bath. Her mum, Giulia, had moved over to England from Italy in her twenties and had decided to stay after meeting Graham. Ava was an only child but had grown up around football and kitchens, her parent’s twin passions. They holidayed in Italy every year as she was growing up, meeting up with family and spending time just enjoying each other’s company.
The food when it arrived was hot and delicious. The cicchetti consisted of various small plates of olives, meatballs, prosciutto and dates, tomatoes, arancini and soft goat’s cheese and other things tasting of garlic and herbs that Harper couldn’t identify but which were creamy and eaten with gusto. Ava had ordered a bottle of wine, red and full of flavour which had perfectly complimented the spread.
She’d decided early on that she wanted to speak fluent Italian; she’d gone to classes outside of school and attended a couple of Italian Clubs at weekend. Ava loved having that secret little language that she could share with her mother, cousins, aunts and uncles back in Italy. Graham could get by but he was hardly fluent; he’d often sat back while his two girls as he called them spoke or ordered for him.
At that point she caught herself. Sitting forward, her white blouse brushing the edge of the table she looked earnestly at Harper. “You didn’t mind did you, I wasn’t being rude at all?”
Harper laughed it off. “If anything it was appreciated. I like that you see know what you want, it’s refreshing.”
Once the plates were mostly empty and the bottle was almost finished they finally turned the conversation to football.
“So you must be pleased with the start to the season, my dad says it’s the best we’ve played in years.”
Harper nodded, swallowing the last of the salami. “The team are getting to grips with it well; we’re just still trying to rush things in the final third. We need to cool down, to calm down a little. Too many shots are being fired in from outside the box; too many good moves are being wasted by poor finishing or by a rush of blood to the head. It’s something I’ll have the lads working on this week – we’ve another quick turn around to be honest; in only a few days we’ll be doing it all over again.”
He took the final mouthful of his wine and then looked back at Ava before continuing.
“I know we’re on the verge of something great, we just need to put the pieces together. Do you know what I mean?”
She smiled warmly at him.
“I think I know exactly what you mean Harper, and I can’t wait to enjoy the ride.”
As the plates were cleared Harper dug out a card from his pocket to settle the bill.
“It’s already sorted, don’t worry about it.” Harper was about to complain but Ava shushed him, “I told you, my treat.”
As they left the host, a tall thin gentleman with a thick accent and an even thicker moustache gave Ava a small hug and thanked them both for coming.
“Addio topolina, say hello to your papa from me.”
“Si zio, grazie.” Came Ava’s reply and they stepped out into the night.
They walked back to their cars quietly and before getting in and heading in their different direction she gave Harper a small kiss on the cheek.
“Thank you for tonight Harper, it’s been lovely. We’ll have to do it again soon; very soon.”
He nodded and thanked her for her time and company. He told her he’d look forward to reading her match report and hopefully he’d see before much longer. And that was it. They got in their separate cars, headed out of the car park and back to reality.
By the time Harper got back in from walking Fitz it was well into the night. He changed in the kitchen, throwing his clothes into the hamper in the utility room to deal with in the morning and sorted Fitz out a very late tea. As he boiled the kettle to make himself a drink he lifted the towel draped across his uneaten tea. Lauri had made a lasagne, she made a good lasagne but it was clear that she hadn’t had any herself – it was untouched. On the table sat two wine glasses and an unopened bottle. She’d wanted to celebrate, to give him a nice moment, to share in the spirit of the occasion. Harper felt low, a hollow ache in his stomach. He’d make it up to her he decided, just as soon as they had the time.
Fitz didn’t wait for Harper’s invitation; he’d already made his way upstairs. Deciding against a hot drink Harper switched off the kettle and flicked off the lights. As he slid into bed beside Lauri he gently kissed her between the shoulders so as not to wake her. It took him some time to fall asleep and when he finally did he dreamed of olive groves and lyrical hills, duomos and basilicas and a little mouse that demanded his attention.
Lauri was quiet in the studio the next day. She’d been doodling centurions and phalanxes, playing around with ideas while standing behind the counter for much of the morning. She still didn’t have many people seemingly all that interested in her style or her work and there were only so many tribal pieces, Chinese symbols and playboy bunny ears that you could cope with before you started to questions your calling.
When she was finished with one of the larger designs she was working on between booking appointments she uploaded a picture of it to instagram and another to facebook hoping to generate a bit of interest.
Harper had seemed distant at breakfast. In truth she hadn’t overly wanted to speak to him anyway. The more success he seemed to find in his new career the further away from her he seemed. What happened to the young lad she’d tattooed in Dalry, who so completely overwhelmed her defences and the walls she’d built up? Part of her thought she was just being precious, perhaps vulnerable and a little isolated with being so far from home. Part of her though niggled and wormed at the corners of her, fuelling a nagging doubt she couldn’t dispel.
She took half an hour away from Inkspiration and went to a little sandwich bar she’d started to frequent. Ordering a spicy peri peri chicken on rye with peppery salad and a bag of vegetable crisps she took it outside with her and ate under the shade of a tree in the warm sunshine. The church yard she ate in was quiet and orderly, well kept and manicured. A pigeon hovered a few feet away, hopping in and out on grotesquely misshapen feet at the merest suggestion of a falling crumb. After a few minutes Lauri relented and tossed the optimistic bird a thumb sized piece of the bread and a rich purple beetroot crisp. At least the pigeon seemed to be having a decent day.
Before she headed back to the studio she checked her phone. She’d had a couple of shares and likes of the picture she’d uploaded along with a lot of comments, almost all incredibly positive. It pleased her to see that Ian had shared the picture himself on Inkspiration’s official page, even including a tagline to contact the studio for bookings specifically with her.
The pigeon, emboldened by the titbits she’d thrown had come right to her, its feathers brushing her boots as it turned and waddled to and fro. The soft coo was a warming sound somehow, gentle and reassuring. She almost reached down to attempt a stroke but decided against it, the pigeon might be friendly but it was almost certainly swimming in disease. She opted instead to tip the remaining crumbs from the empty bag onto the floor before getting to her feet and heading back to the studio.
As she pushed open the door and stepped inside the studio Ian looked up from the counter and smiled at her. He put down the pen and closed the appointment book.
“We’ve had a phone call for you.”
Harper’s quick turn around would see Bath make the long trip down to Truro, for a game at Treyew Road. The Tinners were having a rather uneventful season thus far, a single win on the opening weekend followed by a couple of defeats and a handful of draws. Following their recent financial troubles no one had expected much of Truro but at this early stage they were comfortably lower mid table – still plenty of time for the bottom to fall out or for the club to exceed expectations and rise into the upper echelons.
While the first team trained Harper again chose to keep an eye on Rigg who again seemed slightly off the boil. As the session was drawing to a close he asked Chris Iwelumo to send George Rigg to his office once he was changed and sorted – it was time to get to the bottom of this.
The rest of the session went rather well, predominantly fitness based but with a lot of technical skill elements worked in gave a degree of variety. Once the session drew to a close Harper retreated to his office. He’d left his mobile in his desk drawer throughout training which was unusual. He hadn’t wanted to deal with it if he was being honest with himself.
Sitting in his chair he flicked on the computer and then withdrew the phone. He had a missed call from an unrecognized number – they’d not left a voicemail – and a couple of messages, one of which was from Ava. He closed the message notification without reading the message and instead put it down on the desk, turning his attention to the newly powered up screen.
It was almost twenty minutes later when he was raised by a knock at the door. Slowly, tentatively, the door opened and George Rigg poked his face through the gap.
“You wanted to see me gaffer?”
“Yes Riggsy, come on in – grab a seat.”
George had dressed in his street clothes again; tracksuit bottoms a dark tshirt and a grey zip up hoodie. He put his bag down against the wall and sat down in the chair in the tight little office.
“Any idea why I wanted to have a quick few minutes?”
George shook his head a little uncertainly.
“I need to know what’s wrong; you’re not playing like you were start of pre-season. You’ve gone from being one of the first names on the team sheet – I couldn’t not pick you – but now it’s like you’re playing at 60%.” He leaned forward, hands on the desk and looked him square in the eye. “Is everything alright, you don’t seem yourself.”
George sighed. “Nothing’s wrong gaffer just, I’m not a fullback.”
Harper blinked and paused before answering. “What do you mean you’re not a fullback?”
“Last season I played centre mid, pre-season I played a bit of centre mid and a bit of right back; now I’m just a right fullback. Gaffer I’m not a fullback, I don’t want to be a fullback – I want to play centre mid.”
It wasn’t what he’d expected. He’d expected personal issues to be distracting him or maybe he’d had his head turned by another club. It could possibly have been that he was realising that a future in football was starting to look beyond him and the realisation that he needed to work another job in order to play was causing him to rethink his career. Harper hadn’t expected this however.
“George, you’re playing week in week out – you’re starting every game for us right now. When we go forward you’re one of the focal points, shit kids are singing your name in the street after the games!”
“But I don’t want to play fullback.”
Harper tried a different tack.
“When I came in the coaches gave me a thorough report on each of you lads; you came out as an accomplished central midfielder but a natural fullback – you are better suited to playing wide than through the middle. Your quickness and ability to beat a man is wasted in the middle of the park, you might not want to be a fullback but trust me Riggsy you are a fullback.”
“You’re not listening boss, I don’t enjoy fullback – I don’t want to be a defender.”
It was like talking to a brick wall, George Rigg had made his mind up – being a fullback was being a defender and he saw himself as a midfielder. Harper had encountered it in players in Scotland when he was still playing himself. They divided the pitch into three areas, defence, midfield and attack. Defenders defended, midfielders created opportunities and attackers scored from them. This was black and white in the thinking of some people. As Harper’s Bath City had been demonstrating all season these Romans were cut from different cloth – everything was a shade of grey.
“If you play right back you’ll be the first choice. If you’re centre mid you won’t be, pure and simple.” It was time for some harsh realities. “You are not as good as El Bekri; you’re not as good as Thanoi; you don’t want to defend so you can’t be shoehorned into the ball winning role besides which you aren’t as good as El Hadji Ba. I wouldn’t even say you’d get a game ahead of Murphey or Warburton at this stage. You want to play centre mid but there are three roles available in our style of play and you are at least fifth in the pecking order. Is this really something you want to press?”
George Rigg stayed silent for a moment, refusing to meet Harper’s gaze. His eyes took in the tactic chart and the notice board, drew along the green leafy plant in the corner, took in the intricacies of the vents on the back on the monitor. Finally he looked at Harper and spoke.
“You asked me what’s wrong, that’s what’s wrong. You’re playing me out of position and I’m done with it.”
The meeting didn’t last much beyond that point. Harper excused Rigg and after he left he placed a call to Valentin Gjokaj, leaving a voicemail asking him to speak to Rigg before he did anything too hasty. Next he went in search of Chris Iwelumo who was likely overseeing the younger players training session.
As he walked out onto the pitch again he spotted Chris near the put up goals running a shooting drill. Two players were posted out wide, swinging low cutting crosses into the area on the diagonal. Inside the box the training players looked to meet the cross on the volley or half volley, striking clean and crisp and into the bottom corners. Three static red mesh metal figures defended the box from the crosses and shots while the youth team goalkeepers cycled in and out to meet the attempts.
Seeing Harper coming he left the lads to continue practising and turned and met him mid way.
“How’d it go with Riggsy?”
Harper bit back his urge to spit and swear. “He’s, ah, he says he’s not a fullback – doesn’t want to play right back. He wants to play centre mid.”
Chris nodded; he’d suspected that might be the cause although he’d hoped he was wrong.
“I’ve left a message with Gjoks to have a word with him, see if he’s serious. If he is how close is Coadey to being ready to step up? Could he be ready for Truro?”
Chris gestured across to the training drill. Out on the right flank the sixteen year old Chris Coade was swinging in crosses, each one fizzed two or three feet off the ground with a gentle curl bringing them away from the defending frame manikins.
“The attacking side of the game he’s already better than Riggsy - dribbles better, crosses better - but he’s only a kid, he’ll need to bulk up rapidly or they’ll throw him all over the park. What about moving things around instead, playing Ball at right back and Iacovitti at left?”
Harper shook his head.
“I’m not rearranging the entire backline because of one fucking drama queen. If Rigg won’t play right back fine, we move onto someone who will. We’re having a great season, we travel to Truro the day after tomorrow and if he isn’t buying into what we’re doing then we blood someone who is.”
Harper watched the session unfold for another minute or two before he addresses Chris Iwelumo again.
“So honestly, will he be ready?”
Chris chewed his gum and shrugged. “I guess we’ll see on Saturday.”
Harper patted him on the shoulder. “Thanks mate, bring him to see me will you when the session’s through? I want you there too.”
The rain was unrelenting, blasting down onto the playing fields adjacent to the New County Hall in Truro. In the summer Cornwall was supposed to be bathed in sunshine and warm weather, no one had informed Truro of this before Bath City’s arrival.
The drive had been long and slow. Traffic on the road network had made the journey more stop start than anyone had intended and when the coach finally pulled up outside the Treyew Road ground off the A390 the nervous energy was palpable. As soon as the players were changed Harper had Chris and the coaches start them working off some of the excitement; today was a day for a business-like performance.
Coade would be starting at right back for the first time in the league, becoming the youngest starter in a competitive game in Bath City’s history. He’d been excited when given the news, had asked if there was a problem with George Rigg or if there was injury. He’d taken the news professionally, with the grace of someone destined for it. Harper had again been impressed by the youngster.
Rigg for his part dropped to the bench. He spent the coach ride in silence, headphones on for the entire drive staring out of the windows – an island of isolation in a sea of camaraderie.
Harper went through the usual pregame motions; introducing himself to the opposition coaches and the officials, walking the ground and getting acclimatized. Before long the official supporter’s club had arrived on site, a big blue coach from a local firm with black and white scarves hung out of every available window. Harper had even started to recognize a few of the usual faces. He acknowledged them with a smile and wave when they began to sing his name during the warm ups and got a good reaction. Standing near one eighteen yard box he cast his eyes across the rest of the stadium such as it was he saw a familiar figure stood around the half way line.
Ava wore a thick black coat, hood up against the rain. Despite the huddled appearance he’d have recognized her anywhere. With a slight catch in his throat he realized he’d been looking for her specifically. She inclined her head a little towards him, a subtle hello and a little smile tugged at her cheeks. Harper pursed his lip slightly and nodded to her, before turning with his hands in his pockets and focusing back on the warm up.
The Bath City side which kicked off were second in the league after a perfect start, with only goal difference separating them from Ebbsfleet above and two points above third placed Dartford. The team was largely unchanged with a return in goal for Davies and a first start for Coade at right back joining Gjokaj, Whitmore and Iacovitti in the back four. El Hadji Ba – the rock in midfield – kept his place at the base of the trio with Ideniran and Thanoi. The attacking triplet of Sommerville, Williams and Diallo completed the look.
For the first time in the season Bath City would don their sky blue second kit. It didn’t have the impact of the black and white stripes but it was far from the worst kit Harper had ever worn or seen. The rest of the coaching staff wore navy tracksuits and training gear rather than the usual black, to complement the kit a little better. Harper for his part wore his usual hoodie and jeans, the hood down but a little beanie over his head to keep the worst of the rain off.
Truro won the toss and kicked off; set up in a wide 4-5-1 their goal was clearly to choke the midfield and try to make the most of the extra men in the wider areas. The weather hampered the play a little, the surface slippery and they overcooked a few passes in the early stages leading Bath to easily intercept. The first meaningful attack came in the third minute, with Diallo connecting with a through ball from Ideniran and running at goal. A heavy sliding tackle took him off his feet and landed him on the deck twenty five yards or so from goal, drawing a whistle and a card from the referee.
The teams jogged into their respective positions and Thanoi stood over the ball. The goalkeeper, Thomas McHale, adjusted his wall fully expecting a direct shot of goal. Thanoi had other ideas however and swung the ball over the wall, curling it into an area between the penalty spot and the six yard box. Leaping highest of all Kieran Sommerville met it with a header, firm and hard. McHale tried to parry the shot but couldn’t muscle it out; the roof of the net bulged for one nil after only six minutes!
The Bath City faithful were still celebrating when they were given cause to do so again. Straight from the kick off Williams won back possession and played back to Thanoi. He lifted the ball high for Sommerville twenty yards out who flicked the ball on for Diallo to chase. Through on goal again Diallo didn’t give them chance to bring him down, sliding the ball under the advancing goalkeeper and into the empty goal. Seven minutes played and two nil up!
The thirteenth minute brought more joy, again for Sommerville. Chris Coade on his first foray down the right beat his marker and then a second defender, crossing from deep that low fizzing cross field ball. Sommerville met it around twelve yards out, volleying a perfect drive into the bottom right just inside the post. Less than a quarter of the way through the game and Bath were already looking out of sight.
Harper jotted a couple of notes on a scrap of paper from his pocket as Chris Iwelumo came over.
“If we keep this up we could have a cricket score here!”
He wasn’t wrong; with every attack Bath looked like scoring. McHale parried a couple away for corners and caught a couple more before the twenty minute mark. Truro’s goal was under siege.
Thanoi added another assist to his tally on the 21st minute, a corner looped in from the left was only partially dealt with by Truro’s Ben Gerring saw the clearance fall to Ideniran twenty five yards out. He took a touch, took another step, putting the ball onto his favoured right foot and blasted a line drive into the top left corner, rattling the post on its way in. That made it four nil with plenty of time still to go.
The team were playing how they had for the last few weeks; the only difference was that they were finding the net. The bench were ecstatic; the fans were dancing and celebrating – a chorus of We’re singing in the rain echoed around the open field. It was all Harper could do to stop himself from joining in.
The rain regrouped on the half hour mark, a stinging rain which peppered the pitch almost on the horizontal. One thing which had always marvelled Harper was how many different kinds of rain Britain seemed capable of dishing out, from big rain drops which felt like golf balls to that fine misting which soaked you to the skin without realising it until at least you came to sit down afterwards. Living in Scotland for as long as he had he thought he’d seen all the various types and kinds of rain, but horizontal driving rain replete with the taste of the sea on the wind was a new one on him.
In the face of the constant buffeting of the wind and the slipperiness of the surface Harper opted to call off the dogs until the start of the next half. Bath settled in for the final fifteen minutes, conserving a little more energy yet still proving a constant threat to McHale and his shell shocked defence.
At half time he spoke with the players as a group, telling them that this was exactly what their play in the last few weeks has been threatening. Dominant from the first to the last man he left them with a single point, “We’re doing incredibly, but I’ve seen you play better than this. Let’s see just how close to cricket score we can take this one!” When they left for the second half confidence was on the crest of a wave.
Harper took a moment to send a quick text to Lauri, Have you seen the half time score? Smashing them! X
His phone still blinked a notification; he still had an unread message from Ava. He let his coaching staff leave before him, being the last man to leave he flicked off the lights on his way out and back into the belting rain. He took a minute to read the message before deleting it and putting his phone back in his pocket.
As he began to slog across to the technical area in front of the dugout his phone went off in his pocket, vibrating once and then a moment later a second time. The first message was from Lauri, Did Truro not turn up? ;p Sounds like Sommerville is having a good game! X
The second message was from Ava, again he dropped it into his pocket without opening – there was a game to play and he needed his attention focused. The distractions could wait for later.
Truro had changed their look for the second half – a couple of personnel changes had occurred with another striker coming on and one midfielder replaced for a more attacking one. Their formation pivoted from the 4-5-1 which clearly hadn’t worked into a 4-4-2 diamond, retaining the width but offering a little more stability at the back and hopefully more of an edge going forward.
In the wind and the rain play and creativity were stifled somewhat and as the wind picked up the crosses and long balls became ever more inaccurate. Bath pressed on though, their talent and unorthodox formation causing problems throughout the second half much like the first. Ideniran hit the post from twenty five, Sommerville forced a good save and even Chris Coade had a strike on goal – Bath weren’t finished with the score line just yet.
As Harper considered making his first change Bath’s players added a fifth to the score line, Diallo again breaking clear of the last man took the ball down the channel and drew out to advancing keeper. Rather than strike past him however he stroked the ball laterally, into the path of the onrushing Williams for the easiest goal of his career.
A sixth would eventually come for Bath in the 83rd minute, following the introduction of Ball and McCootie. Chris Coade on the overlap took the lead ball from Diallo, hooked a cross in low and hard which was met by Sommerville who finished into the bottom left, for an almost perfect repeat on their first combination in the first half. The first hat trick of his professional career earned him the man of the match award a bottle of champagne from the sponsors which he was still too young to enjoy himself.
The fulltime whistle when it came was given to a three quarter empty ground. The few hundred Truro supporters that had braved the rain had mostly evaporated at half time or after the fifth goal; those that remained had witnessed an absolute spectacle despite the pouring rain.
After the match the players celebrated in the dressing room, Chris Coade and hat trick hero Kieran Sommerville singled out by Harper and the coaching staff – both had been a revelation. Somewhere George Rigg sat on his own, joining the celebrations half heartedly at best.
Harper excused himself for his usual mingle with the fans and slunk out into the rain, limping slightly as he hurried to try to catch them up. As he crossed towards the few mingled, moving fans he could see he heard a voice behind him, soft and warm which made his stomach fill with butterflies.
“I’m starting to think you’re avoiding me, Mr Tanner…”
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