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

Taking the reins at Bath City FC Harper Tanner tries to steer the club from Non-League annonymity to the promised land
Started on 24 October 2017 by Po Red5
Latest Reply on 24 May 2018 by Po Red5
Part 16

The images shared on social media had the desired effect. Calls had come in from various people requesting sittings and booking consult time with Lauri. The studio, particularly Ian himself, were very pleased not least as it was driving footfall and interest in the studio. One particular call had really caught her attention however.

A fans group had seen the picture of the centurion; four lads wanted stylistically matching tattoos all a slightly different Roman in the colours of the club crest. All four were students at the University of Bath; all four had spent a few seasons following the club their shared house overlooked. Each wanted a centurion bursting through on the back of their calf, a memento from their university days and their few years following Bath City. Lauri had liked the way they’d talked, she’d liked the sound of the project and had agreed to meet with them all at the same time to discuss what they wanted and the scope of freedom she’d like to have over the finished designs.

The appointment took an hour, in the back room of the studio usually reserved as a break space for Ian and Chris and now Lauri between sessions. One would have the image exactly as she’d sketched out; the second wanted a similar centurion but with a slightly different pose; the third wanted his to have no helmet, an exposed face roaring his defiance; while the fourth told her to do whatever she wanted, her style was such that whatever she came up with would be perfect. All four would need a full day initially with a returning full day session to complete the design. She’d offered to throw in any touch up work required after the second session had healed up.

Before long the four had shared their impending tattoos on social media and Lauri had started pencilling out the remaining three centurions, filling page after page of partial sketches in her pad as she sat behind the counter. Lauri also received a few messages from up in Edinburgh, asking when she was back in the city for a guest session and where could they book slots. It was nice to feel wanted.

Harper again had a quick turn around on his week. On the Saturday coming, the 20th, he’d be taking his lads 170 miles to the north east, to play Bishops Stortford. After the away trip to Truro that would feel like a very long trip indeed.

The players were upbeat following the six nil drubbing of Truro and while Bishops Stortford had just endured a three nil defeat at the hands of Hungerford Harper was keen to avoid complacency. The players had a day off on Wednesday to recuperate and the plan was to train Thursday and Friday a mix of both technical, tactical and physical sessions before travelling up on the Saturday morning bright and early. Other teams in other leagues might fly the 340 mile round trip but Bath City were considered lucky to have a coach as opposed to having to drive themselves like a lot of teams at the level they operated at.

Harper had returned to the coach for the trip back from Truro a little late again after his walk with the fans. He’d been excited and enthusiastic on the trip back, joining in the songs and the celebrations but was still all the same a little distracted.

Ava stole half an hour with him, quickly touching on the game and asking a couple of questions about their dominance before the notebook and Dictaphone disappeared into a pocket. They walked together, inches apart in the falling rain talking about the meal and about nothing of consequence. Eventually she stopped him on a little footpath between two grassy spaces linking Treyew Road with Treworder.

She asked him if he was ever going to kiss her properly or just flirt and dance around the issue. He’d hesitated a moment and then as the rain tumbled around them her lips had found his and rendered the question moot.

On the coach ride up to Bishops Stortford his thoughts turned over Ava, the little mouse, and Lauri; they snicked across Bath City and how his career had led him to this point; briefly they touched on George Rigg who had so completely been usurped by the sixteen year old Chris Coade in the right back position, mostly through his own insistence.

The text messages from Ava when he eventually read them were short and to the point, Are you free this week? I want to see you. Dinner again, my treat? The second, received at the start of the match at Truro was blunter still, You do look rather sexy in the rain, Mr Tanner ;p

Chris Iwelumo had told Harper he seemed distracted during training. It had been a distracting week he’d told him but said no more, shrugging it off as lack of sleep and little else. His assistant was forming a close partnership with Harper, the two of them worked well together. The board were happy with how they were progressing and the developments they were pushing through in training were having an impact across the club at both senior and junior levels. In truth Harper was beginning to see Chris as more a friend than anything, a compatriot on a journey with him together as opposed to his assistant. It was nice to have someone to rely on, that supported him.

As the coach pulled into Woodside Park, a rather more impressive ground than many in the league, Harper dropped Lauri a text. Hope it’s a good day today, send me a pic of the finished tat? X The first session for the first of the students was today, outlining and detailing on the centurion as she’d first envisaged it. Harper had loved the design, as had a fair few of the players and staff at Bath City. It wasn’t to Maggie’s taste per say but she’d been very complimentary about the composition herself, even asking if they could use images of the completed tattoos in some of the club’s marketing and social media presence. A few of Harper’s players had also expressed an interest in Lauri’s work and at least two that he was aware of had contacted Inkspiration to enquire over sessions with the gaffer’s wife.

Woodside Park had two long seated stands across either touchline, with standing terraces behind the goals. Adjacent to Birchanger Services and the golf course it was a stones throw from Stansted Airport and the constant buzz of aircraft overhead gave the place an odd air. The weather had at least improved since midweek, a muggy grey overcast a significant improvement on the torrential downpours which blanketed their last game.

Along with the players and fans some of the board had travelled across for the game, four of them flying from Bristol on a budget carrier. They were already at the ground when the players arrived, shaking hands and welcoming them in person before retiring to a bar with the upper echelons of Bishop Stortford’s executive team. It was rare for them to travel to an away game unless immediately in the vicinity and a few of the coaches and players Harper had inherited made rumblings of the fact.

Harper chose not to let it overly occupy his mind however. Lauri had remained a little disjointed from him and disconnected, in truth they both had been. They’d shared a couple of evenings just the two of them and Harper had made an effort not to return from training too late or be unduly distracted. It had been nice just enjoying each other’s company, cooking and eating together, playing a board game with a glass of wine and going up to bed together early and staying in later than they had been doing. She’d perked up a little as he’d made an effort with his attention but clearly this was a band aid and little more.

On the coach over, between his musings, Harper had gone through the team for the game and the strategy going forward; they’d keep an unchanged side for the present – after a six nil win any changes would be tantamount to folly. The intent was to harry and harass Bishops Stortford from the outset, to concentrate balls through the channels in the centre and as the players tucked in to compensate for the fullbacks to bomb forward providing width into the exposes spaces behind.

They expected a 4-4-2 from Bishops Stortford so when the team sheet was announced as a 5-4-1 it caused a few raised eyebrows. Clearly knowing they’d be on the back foot the coaches were setting their stall out not to lose rather than to win. Harper smelled blood in the water, even before kick off.

Bishop Stortford’s home colours of bright blue and white stripes had been deemed a little too similar to Bath’s black and white, so Harper again watched as his team ran through their warm ups in their change kit of sky blue. Behind the goal the away fans were already singing, despite the gloomy look above their spirits were high. Almost a hundred had made the trip to Bishops Stortford; two coaches had travelled up plus those who made their own way. There was a buzz as the teams made their way back into the dressing rooms for the final talks before the game.

Between them Harper and Chris set out the stall; an unchanged side with a high pressing, high tempo approach – give the very originally nicknamed Blues something to rattle them. Gjokaj had a few words too and then the doors were opened and then trotted into what amounted to a tunnel before shaking hands with their hosts and heading out onto the pitch. Kouassi and Ward of Bishops Stortford took the kick off and the match was underway.

Back in Bath Lauri had almost completed the outlining of the centurion’s head and the upper half of the calf in preparation for the detailing. The little digital radio in the room was tuned to the local station, giving irregular updates on the game as it would unfold. Her client, Nathan, lay on his stomach on the bench as she worked texting and chatting to her about football, music and the similarities between Edinburgh and Bath. For his part he was from Colchester, another Roman city and had started going to watch Bath because it was a cheap way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Also it provided a ready made excuse to have a drink or three. Lauri didn’t mention her own connection with Bath merely saying she followed the club for family reasons and left it at that.

Just as they took a break so Lauri could get another coffee and Nathan could grab a quick cigarette the radio broke in with the first major update, there had been a goal.

While Thanoi had lifted a lofted pass from the centre of the park to the onrushing Ideniran Sommerville had been pushed at the edge of the area and brought down for a free kick. Thanoi again swung it in towards the back post; Whitmore met the cross with a powerful header which came down into the six yard box. Osborne, back defending for Bishops Stortford hacked an attempted clearance high and hard as he fell, the ball crashing between the outstretched arms of the goalkeeper and into the roof of the net. One nil, an own goal by Osbourne and after only eleven minutes of play.

Bishops Stortford dug in following the goal, their five man defence suffocating Bath’s forwards and leaving men on the cover to intercept the advancing fullbacks and roaming midfielders. Going forward the Blues offered little in the way of danger, a handful of crosses and through balls and two efforts on goal both from twenty yards or so were all they had to show for their efforts. As a rather drab first half came to a close Bath held a single goal advantage.

Lauri continued with Nathan until all the outlining across the entire piece was done. The second session would be shading and would pick out the features and details more fully along with adding the colour. The majority of the piece would be greyscale, mirroring the black and white of the club crest with a bright and vibrant stripe of red vertical, painting a swathe directly up the figure as he burst through the ripping skin of the canvas. She’d saved a space along the blade of his gladius, every design like this she always signed and Nathan had been only to happy to agree to that. The signature would be hidden in the shadework, but it would be there if anyone went looking for it.

The second half had already kicked off as she took a picture of the work thus far before rubbing in the barrier cream and wrapping his leg in cling film. In a week she’d complete the design but after a break on Sunday she’d be starting in on the second sitter on Monday morning, bright and early.

As he pulled his jacket on and thanked her the radio sputtered into relevance again; in the 63rd minute Sommerville broke unopposed into the Bishops Stortford area and with his first real effort in the match put Bath two nil up, a carefully weighted strike into the bottom right corner of the goal.

“Get the fuck in!” He beamed at her. “I’ve a tenner that we get three today!”
Lauri smiled and asked if he was joining the other three to listen to the rest of the match.

“They’ve gone, I should have been there too but I got a better offer. I’ll just head for a drink and catch them when they get back later. See you next week Lauri.”

Nathan hadn’t been out of the studio ten minutes when the first of his comments lit up her phone with a notification, Great session with Lauri @Inkspiration on my centurion! New tattoo and two nil up, it’s a good day! Come on your Romans! She smiled, pressed like and began cleaning down the workspace before heading home. She had a hankering for goat’s cheese and had decided to stop in for a bit of shopping on the way home. Lauri clicked the radio off and said her goodbyes to Ian and Needles before heading out into the street. Minutes after the radio commentator would cut in again had she been there to hear it.

Ten minutes after the goal, and following a couple of changes on both sides of the pitch, Bath found themselves defending a corner. The ball was swung in from the right side, a high arcing ball which Gjokaj rose highest to clear. It came out as far as Ward who drilled a first time effort back into the box, Whitmore attempted to clear – El Hadji Ba attempted to clear – an impromptu game of pinball broke out in the penalty area before the ball found its way out to Kouassi who met it on the half volley. Davies barely had time to register a shot had been taken when the back of the net behind him bulged for two one in the 73rd.

Feeling emboldened by the goal Bishops Stortford pressed their momentum, pegging Bath back into their own half. The high tempo, high pressing game combined with the travel of the past week had resulted in some tired legs out on the pitch for Bath City.

Eventually the ball found Chris Coade about twenty five yards out from his own goal wide to the right. He rounded a man and then took on a second, jinking past the onrushing midfielder and skipping into the clear. He played a quick one two pass with El Hadji Ba before driving a long diagonal into space for Jason Williams unmarked at the edge of the box. He took a touch, bringing the ball under control and advancing a pace in towards the middle of the park. On his favoured right foot he shot, hard and high – the goalkeeper parried it but didn’t get enough on it. His hand took the sting from the shot but the ball still found the top corner. The Blues had come within a goal for only five minutes, the 78th seeing the scoreboard tick on to three one.

Changes were rung almost immediately with the most tired legs being replaced and the team freshened up accordingly. George Rigg came on in the middle of the park to replace Ideniran and get his first appearance in midfield under Harper Tanner. Diallo had been replaced by McCootie and lastly Murphey had come on to give El Hadji Ba a much needed rest and an early sit down.
The game petered out after the changes. Harper pulled back the tempo and sat his side in a little deeper and Bishops Stortford had given their all but without the reward they were seeking – the fifteen minute spell their best in the game. Back to back defeats for Bishop Stortford saw them tumble into the relegation zone and Bath’s win gave them the top spot in the table for the first time in the season.

After the game the players celebrated, the coach ride home again having something of a holiday atmosphere. Harper had walked out with the fans with his hood up. Barely any fans were walking so he milled about outside the turnstiles to catch a taste of their mood before heading back inside just as he was recognized. Two fans, both about eleven or so asked for his autograph and he readily signed the front of their programmes before posing for a sheltie and escaping.

His phone had two messages from Lauri, one of congratulations and one a picture of the tattoo thus far. He also had a single message from Ava, Not at the game today – Andy White covering yours. See you next week? X

He tapped out a quick reply, I can be free Tuesday, we’ve no game on unless you’re busy?x

Ava’s response was instant, Never too busy for my favourite roman. See you Tuesday. X
Part 17

It made a pleasant change for Bath City to have a full week between games, a rarity in the lower leagues. After two road games, and over 600 miles travelled, it felt good to be back at Twerton Park.

Training had gone well in the week. The players were getting more and more confident and familiar with the tactics and the scheme they’d been given. A few of the younger players in the youth set up were really blossoming and even the naysayers in the inherited coaching pyramid were beginning to warm to it – good results had a way of eliciting those sort of reactions.

Lauri’s week had also been rather productive. The four students had completed the first sittings; all had posted on social media about the work and about Lauri specifically and her diary in the studio was filling up. She was still missing Edinburgh though and had taken to calling her mum most lunchtimes, just to check in and get a fix of the accent she was so desperately and unexpectedly missing.

Harper gave the players a day off following the game and Bishop Stortford and on the Monday they just ran through exercises, physical and fitness drills. The rest of the week they trained half days for the most part, the primary focus being teamwork and cohesion.

It took until Tuesday for Harper to find our why Paul Williams and the board had visited Bishop Stortford. He wasn’t sure what the technical term was for it but Harper mentally filed it under the category of “schmoozing”. Just before 11:00 on the Tuesday morning Maggie had been over, inviting him to a meeting with Paul that afternoon. Over coffee and a couple of home made cookies they’d given Harper the news, Bath had formalised their affiliation with Bristol City. The two clubs would play a friendly each off-season and Bristol would look to use Bath as an outlet to blood some of their youth players. As a side benefit Bath would receive a generous payment to help develop the club infrastructure, Paul was happy to promise reveal that the first thing on the agenda at the next board would be to formally commit to becoming a full time club.

Harper knew this would take time, probably the end of the season, but it was progress. He wasn’t even all that concerned about the influx of loan players the deal may potentially bring – just so long as there was no game time requirement included and so long as final say on their inclusion remained his.
Back in his office he met with Chris Iwelumo and broke the news to him. Chris could see the benefit financially that the arrangement could bring and if it meant bringing in players the calibre of Max O’Leary – providing they were fit and up for the fight – he could see the appeal. The news filtered through the rest of the club for the remainder of the day and through the squad the following day. By Thursday it was old news.

After training on Tuesday Harper let Lauri know the news about Bristol City and told her he’d be home late. He met Ava at Marco’s and again they discussed the news of the day, the result at weekend and ate a healthy amount of Italian food. She promised to be at Twerton Park for the game against East Thurrock and while he tried to keep it professional she didn’t make it easy for him. As they left she gave him another kiss and told him she’s see him at weekend.

In the car afterwards his phone lit up with a text message, I’m calling that our second date, Mr Tanner. Let me know when you want our third ;p

Despite his attraction to her Harper was conflicted. You know I’m married don’t know?

Right now I’m just enjoying this – I’m not looking for anything serious, just a little fun. Third date, Mr Tanner – let me know when works for you. X

East Thurrock were enjoying a middling season so far, a blend of wins and losses but overall nil-nil draws had been the story of their season. Newly promoted to the National League South they’d retained the vast majority of the team without change – the players clearly enjoying their new surroundings and stepping up against the higher standard opposition.

Playing in yellow and black The Rooks sitting twelfth in the season arrived early for the game against top of the table Bath. They took the opportunity to get a bite to eat before heading out to train as the fans slowly, gradually filled Twerton Park. The scout report was fairly straight forward – East Thurrock played a simply 4-4-2, putting in crosses where possible from the wide men towards a target man in the middle. A deeper defensive line played an unadventurous game and the central midfielders served little more than to shuttle the play out wide and close down the opposition in the centre of the park. The strike partner typically harried and harassed the defence in similar manner, playing more as a defensive forward than anything more attacking. It made them difficult to play against but also left them occasionally with little going forward on the rare occasions they made it into the final third.

Harper wasn’t offering many surprises by way of formation. Bath would trot out again in the Fantastic Five variant that had served them so well of recent. Davies kept the goalkeeping jersey and would barring any injury. Chris Coade, the young revelation at right back kept his place as did Whitmore and Gjokaj in the centre. At left back Dan Ball came into the side, giving Iacovitti a rest and a place on the bench. El Hadji Ba in the water carrier role remained in the squad, joined by Thanoi and Ideniran. The front three were comprised of Diallo on the right, Williams on the left and Sommerville as always through the middle.

As the Bath players carried out their warm ups, under the careful watch of Iwelumo the ground filled up steadily. By the start of play there would be nearly 4,500 in attendance and the atmosphere was charged and expectant. News that Bath had reached an official agreement with Bristol City had been met with enthusiasm from the majority of the supporters – the stories in the Non-League paper and the local paper both made optimistic reading. As he thumbed a programme before the players returned to the dressing room Harper paused on the section written by the chairman. Paul Williams talked about the future and referenced not just the potential for new players but the potential for new funds to affect change on the club as a whole. As he led the players back for the pre-game team talk he couldn’t help but feel that same bubble of optimism and enthusiasm growing again.

The players filed into the changing rooms and took a seat while Harper outlined the task ahead of them. East Thurrock would defend and sit in, they’d be conservative and look to isolate and spoil the game. They’d come for a draw – they’d be happy to leave with any points they could, it was up to the players in front of him to make sure that didn’t happen. Their play had earned them top spot in the division but despite how well they were playing he knew they could play better, greatness was calling – they could all feel it.

Iwelumo took over to go through the summary of East Thurrock and the individual assignments – each player knew them already after a full week of drilling but it was becoming a routine and it wouldn’t hurt to hear it one more time.

Finally Gjokaj stood and addressed the team – in the last two games they’d score nine goals, now it was time to show the Twerton Park faithful a few goals, they only needed to play as they had up to now and East Thurrock wouldn’t be able to live with them. To say the players were buoyed by the team talks was an understatement.

In the tunnel Harper again met with his opposite number, shaking hands they wished each other luck and as Back in Black burst out from the speakers above followed their teams out on the turf of Twerton Park. Harper walked to the edge of the pitch, stood for a moment and drank in the noise of the crowd. He turned to the box behind the dugouts and raised a hand, Maggie and Lauri stood together, huddled with a warm paper cup in hand – both returned his wave. Behind them Paul Williams and the other board members stood and applauded the players as they made their entrance. Over to the right of them, in a small section reserved for Press, stood Ava.

The weather was warm but slightly cloudy as the referee checked his watch and waited to blow his whistle to start the game. The sun when it broke through the clouds beat down with a furious brightness that threatened to make the day difficult for the goalkeepers. High balls and looping crosses could well be a challenge for outfield players as well to be fair. Playing the majority of his career in Scotland Harper joked that he wasn’t really used to playing in the sun, in truth though his players were more than prepared.

Diallo and Williams kicked off, the ball returned to the centre of the park and the sure feet of Dennis Ideniran. A lateral pass brought the ball to Thanoi and then he played a first time pass forward towards Sommerville in space in the middle, just in advance of the centre circle. East Thurrock were content to let Bath stroke the ball about, covering space but not pressing or challenging them when in the middle third. A minute or two passed without East Thurrock touching the ball, eventually a loose pass towards Coade was cut out and sprayed clear by Burns. The resulting throw in brought Bath City to within twenty five yards of the East Thurrock goal; their two central midfielders pushing back deeper almost providing an extra two defenders. The clearance was long and high. Harper noted that very few of East Thurrock’s players looked interested in chasing it down or making it their own. If all they wanted to do was defend then Harper was certain his lads would be only to happy to attack and attack and attack.

Content to let Bath City play East Thurrock sat back deeper and deeper as the opening five minutes ticked by. Their numbers prevented any entry into the eighteen yard box but the Roman’s invention managed to manufacture a handful of longer range chances.

In the sixth minute Bath City’s industry was rewarded, Ball broke down the left supported by Ideniran. Finding the young loanee Ball watched as he drove the ball cross field, into the path of Coade in space. Chris Coade chested the ball down and on the half turn swung a cross deep into the area, about ten yards from goal. Sommerville met the descending ball with an outstretched boot volleying it straight and true, past the flapping goalkeeper and low into the bottom right corner.

Any hopes that this might bring East Thurrock out of their shell however was instantly corrected, for the rest of the half Bath City collected the ball, moved it about and as soon as they entered the final third it was smothered and cleared up field or out for a throw. As the half time whistle blew Bath City had managed only one shot on target, the goal. East Thurrock for their part had managed two attempts on goal, surprisingly enough both on target but easily dealt with by Davies in the Bath City goal.

The players were clearly frustrated as they sat down and collected a drinks bottle a piece in the changing rooms. Harper told them they were playing well but needed to be more decisive, possession was all well and good but it needed to translate into an end product. They’d already shown if they can get through the defence they can score, all the game needed was for a few players to take more of a risk and take some chances – East Thurrock were happy to sit in, only managing to get forward following a foul or a break away. Yes it was frustrating playing a team that didn’t come to win but they were good enough to break them down, good enough to overpower them and overcome them – they’d shown that already this season.

As they took to the pitch in the second half again the frustration was re-forged as determination, the players watched as East Thurrock kicked off and then as a man pressed on and took the game to the Rooks. Diallo had an effort from twenty yards out; Williams broke into the box unmarked and had a shot on the angle from fifteen yards; even Ball, bringing the ball forward opted to jink inside rather than look for a cross and struck a stinging ball into the hands of the keeper and over for a corner. Each time East Thurrock cleared the ball Bath returned with another attack, each time Bath came onto them East Thurrock sat back deeper. The game was in danger of repeating the first half’s frustrations.

In the 52nd minute however Bath again found the net. A foul on Coade brought a free kick in a dangerous position at the edge of the area. Thanoi lined up his effort, looped it over the wall and around the helpless keeper – but not past the goal. His dead ball found the corner of the woodwork and quickest to react was Sommerville who, with a yard on the nearest defender and the goalkeeper scrambling, tapped in the ball for his easiest goal of the season.
Harper hoped the second goal might spur some life into East Thurrock but again the restart brought about a resumption in their defensive play. Bath continued knocking at the door but East Thurrock bedded in and refused to be goaded into anything approaching a football match.

Tempers began to fray a little in the Bath City ranks, Ball and El Hadji Ba both picking up a yellow card for harder than needed challenges and Ideniran needed calming down and leading away by his team mates after saying more than he should have to the referee. Ideniran made way in the 65th for Murphey and Rigg came on for Ball in a bid to settle them down. In the 68th El Hadji Ba also made way following another foul and the raise eyebrows of the referee, Iacovitti coming on to fill the hole between defence and midfield.

The free kick taken by East Thurrock was lofted into the box; finally taking a chance they’d had their defenders join the isolated strikers in the Bath penalty area. Usually the height they commanded would grant an opportunity to have an attempt of goal, the combination of Gjokaj, Whitmore and Iacovitti easily dealt with the problem. The ball was headed clear to Rigg twenty five yards from his own goal in the middle of the park. Forgoing his fullback duties he advanced through the middle, playing a neat one – two off Thanoi before finding Williams with a daring through ball. Williams, already advancing into the box when the ball was played took the last two defenders with him before cutting the ball back to the centre. An onrushing Murphey met the ball on the half bounce, driving hard and high to the left easily beating the goalkeeper and finding the net for 3 – 0 with 71 minutes played.

Despite the frustration of the game, the one sidedness of the tie left East Thurrock with no arguments as to whether the score line was deserved or not. Finally at three goals down East Thurrock sparked into some semblance of life. From the kick off they advanced down the right flank, Rigg offering little in the way of resistance as makeshift left back. The attack drew a corner and eventually the height and aerial power they could command saw some result, Allen headed down the corner into the six yard box and Sam Higgins pounced on the loose ball dinking it between the legs of Davies for a consolation goal with fifteen minutes left.

The next ten minutes was the most even of the match, Bath driving forward through the middle and East Thurrock exposing the space out wide in particular along the right hand channel. With only minutes left in the game Bath City launched one final assault on the goal at the town side of Twerton Park.

Coade took a pass from Murphey, linked well with Diallo and advanced himself into the space ahead. Diallo played in to Sommerville who lifted the ball and found Coade five yards from the touchline in space at the edge of the area. First time he returned the cross, a daisy cutter across the ground angled some eight yards from the goal almost parallel to the goal-line. Diallo made no mistake with his shot and making up for the wasted efforts earlier in the game found the bottom corner of the goal, inside the near post.

4 – 1 was perhaps a little unfairly one sided in some eyes of the game, a frustrating first half turning into a comprehensive rout by full time. The possession stats evidenced Bath’s near total dominance but the attempts on target could give East Thurrock hope for the season to come. If nothing else, as Harper said to East Thurrock’s manager after the dust had settled, if they played that way all season they’ll be tough to beat and might just surprise a few people.

The mood of the fans leaving the ground as Harper excused himself and ducked out to drink in the atmosphere had turned from frustration into celebration. Bath City were top of the league, on goal difference at least if not by a points margin. Their shortest turn around of the season would see them travelling again in a couple of days, through Cranbourne Chase to visit Poole FC on bank holiday Monday. For now though Harper allowed himself a few moments to enjoy the crowd.

As he turned around again to sneak back into the team facilities he was met by a young boy in a yellow jacket, a Bath City scarf around his neck. The boy perhaps eight stood rather nervously beside the entry door, a programme and marker pen in hand looking up at Harper. Just over his shoulder his father or possibly grandfather stood, a reassuring hand on the boy’s shoulder. The hand gave a squeeze and pushed the boy forward, ever so slightly.

“Mr Tanner sir, can I have your autograph?”

Harper smiled and took the pen, “What’s your name?”


“Hi Elio, you enjoy the game?” It had been years since Harper had been asked for an autograph and he wanted to milk the moment, just a little longer.

“Yeah, we were brilliant. Sommerville played really well.”

“Kieran Sommerville is his favourite player.” The portly figure behind him offered up.

Harper finished the autograph and message and smiled to the pair of them, “He’s your favourite player?”

“Yeah, he’s the best striker in the league!”

Harper laughed softly, warmly – the youngster’s enthusiasm was infectious. “Would you like his autograph too?”

Elio’s eyes lit up. Harper asked him to wait a moment and then stepped inside, making his way to the changing room he barked out once for Sommerville to come outside as soon as he was dressed and decent, he had a fan to meet.
Part 18

Bank Holiday weekends were something of a challenge for a lot of clubs. People in the back office, involved in promotion and PR, often took the opportunity to try to get more interest in the clubs from the local fan base. This however required money and buy in that a lot of the smaller teams just couldn’t afford. Bath City were in a better position than a lot of clubs but it was only in very recent memory that the team had really struggled, almost ceasing to exist.

A good spirit was building around the place however. On twitter a photo of a young boy stood with his hero, a player only about nine years older than he was himself had done the rounds. Kieran Sommerville was humble and took it professionally. It was obvious he was pleased, happy to have signed his first autographs but he played it cool and Gjokaj and Iwelumo kept him firmly grounded.

After the game Harper had headed straight home, getting back half an hour or so before Lauri did following a late sitting at the studio. As she walked through the door he was already a flurry of activity in the kitchen; red peppers had been stuffed and were awaiting the grill; a salad of fresh leaves and a balsamic dressing rested in a large wooden bowl; fresh bread from the bakery down the road and small dish of olives were already on the kitchen table. He kissed her gently, told her to change into her comfy clothes – some times the highlight of her day – and dinner would be ready when she came back down. When she did the plate that greeted her was peppers stuffed with feta, pine nuts and spicy cous cous, olives and warm bread, garlic and rosemary twists and a small black olive and anchovy tapenade tart to share.

Harper didn’t cook often but when he did he liked to make an effort; the kitchen sink and working tops were an absolute disaster area but that would wait until after they’d eaten. Lauri appreciated the gesture and the two shared a glass of wine or two and ate together, their feet resting against each others under the table where Fitz pretended as best he could to be uninterested in the food above his head.

Sunday was a quiet day. Following the exertions of the previous day and the very short turn around for all the players training was cancelled. Harper spent most of the day relaxing, walking the dog and trying to arrange his thoughts. Lauri was out for the majority of the day, meeting Maggie for a bite to eat and lunch and then spending the early afternoon with her, talking about upcoming projects and the like which they might be able to help each other out with. This left Harper mostly to his own devices.

He resisted the urge to reach out to anyone, to speak with anyone. He wanted the day for himself, to be by himself. A few times over the last few days his agent had called him and the senior team at the club had been in touch on and off; with the uptick in form several people were offering Bath City players and prospects. Just for one day Harper wanted to close himself off from it and deal with it the following day. He’d be working on Bank Holiday Monday; the least they could afford him was a handful of hours to himself.

When Lauri came back she was a buzz of excitement. She suggested they order pizza, picked out a menu and handed it to Harper before settling in on the sofa – in comfy clothes – with her sketch pad, an array of pencils, pens and colours and a small glass of last night’s wine. The pizza was hot and cheesy, the place Lauri had picked out being only a few doors down from Inkspiration and in getting to know the owners a little in the weeks she’d been there a garlic bread and some battered mushrooms had been added to the order without charge.

Monday when it dawned was bright and clear. A two hour drive to Poole for the game meant arriving at Twerton Park in the mid morning ready to leave straight after a slightly early lunch. The players arrived in dribs and drabs, Harper greeted most of them personally as they filed in and when the time came to board the coach everyone was ready.

Poole weren’t a bad side, despite being freshly promoted into the division. Harper sat on the coach reading the scout report while Iwelumo went over the coaches’ reports for the team itself. With no training carried out between the two fixtures the coach reports were not a huge amount of use to be honest, but it was a habit they’d formed and for whatever reason the superstition made sure that they followed the same schedule as previous winning days.

The table was beginning to look more settled; the cream was rising so to speak. Still plenty of time for that to all change, still plenty of time for good starts – or bad ones – to be proved aberrations. Still, the mood of the coach was expectant and enthusiastic.

Poole Town FC’s ground, Tatnam, was on School Lane and the pitch butted up against the playing fields of the local primary school. It was arguable who had the better facilities but only if viewed from a distance, squinting. If anything the grass on the football ground looked more threadbare than that currently marked out with a running track and what amounted to stands were overshadowed by trees the branches of which stretched out overhead. Parking, such as it was, was non-existent – the coach resorting to dropping them as near to the ground as he could get before turning around and heading down to park at the dog track a few hundred yards away.

In honour of the Bank Holiday Poole Town were running an offer, Kids Go Free, in a bid to boost their attendance numbers and hopefully prompt more support in the season to come. With three wins already this season The Dolphins were comfortably upper mid table, hoping to emulate their close rivals Bournemouth, only seven miles away and start a march up the divisions.

Despite the tired legs and the fatigue his players must have been feeling Chris Iwelumo and Harper decided not to muddy things too much unnecessarily. Davies would keep the spot in goal, Coade and Iacovitti playing fullback, Whitmore and Gjokaj in the centre of defence. In front of them, despite clearly tiring in the last couple of games El Hadji Ba had proven irreplaceable in the hole and Thanoi would partner Murphey to give Ideniran that little more time to recover. The front three would remain unchanged – in Harper’s opinion he’d rather have Sommerville, Diallo and Williams start and until one of them had a leg fall off that opinion would likely be unchanged.

Poole Town were expected to line up with a straight 4-4-2, as was rather typical in the league. They sometimes had played a narrow diamond in midfield but that wasn’t likely, not today, not in the scout’s opinion. Bath had proven all season up to now that their midfield three were a match for any foursome in the league, why would a team voluntarily drop that man advantage? Harper was confident and composed. About one hundred had made the trip down through Cranbourne Chase. Bolstered by the free kid’s places Poole anticipated almost 1,500 supporters in total. It was safe to say the Romans would be outnumbered on the south coast.

Poole’s best player so far this season had been Carl Pettefer, a diminutive, veteran midfielder who also wore the armband for the game due to injuries elsewhere in the squad. He would be joined in the middle of the park by new signing Corby Moore, a young whippet with something of a chip on his shoulder after being released numerous times in his fledgling career. It was those two that took the kick off, playing between themselves before laying the ball wide left for the winger and getting the game under way.

A nervy start it was safe to say opened proceedings. A few rash tackles drew fouls and a few hopeful balls forward from either side were easily snuffed out. Ten minutes passed with barely a shot in anger being made. In the centre of the park Pettefer shadowed Thanoi, more or less man-marking him while Moore looked to cover EHB and prevent his involvement. The spoiling tactics in the middle of the park were having success breaking the link play, a change was required.

When the ball dropped out of play Harper called over Diallo, the closest player to him at the time. A slight shuffle of formation was in order – if it was a zonal marking scheme Poole Town were employing the centre of the park then likely the change wouldn’t make any difference, if it was a man to man scheme however it might just crack it wide open.

Iacovitti moved into the hole vacated by EHB who dropped into left back. Williams moved back into the centre mid role, with Thanoi asked to push higher up on the left, almost as an advanced playmaker, in the gap between Poole’s defence and attack. This left the team slightly unbalanced and with the Famous Five looking more like a famous-four-and-a-half, still if nothing else it would likely reveal Poole’s strategy.

As EHB swapped places with Iacovitti Moore followed, opening a hole in midfield. As Thanoi moved up the field Pettefer similarly reacted, widening the hole – the centre of the park was suddenly devoid of Poole Town players. Spotting the opportunity Whitmore scooped up the loose ball and drilled a low clearance into the space around Williams. Williams, with space to run advanced into the opposition half, realising the break down in coverage Pettefer left his man to cover the distance. Jason Williams waited until he was within three paces and lofted the ball into the feet of the now open Thanoi. At the edge of the area and with the goal at his mercy Thanoi feigned a shot before rolling it across the centre of the box where Sommerville waited. From ten yards out Sommerville was yet to miss this season and he added to his already impressive tally in the 19th minute, one nil!

With the man trap exposed Bath City remained in their somewhat altered formation. Pettefer and Moore struggled to maintain their assignments – balancing covering a specific player now out of position with filling the appropriate place on the pitch was too much of a struggle. The space kept opening up in the middle of the park, despite their man advantage. After another five minutes Poole reacted, Pettefer moving into the centre again fully as did Moore – they were marking the space and not the man. Harper smiled, half the battle between the dugouts was always about making the other side play your game rather than their own. In that regard Tommy Kilick had blinked first, they were now firmly reactive as opposed to proactive. Harper reshuffled the pack again and the attacks continued.

Ten minutes later the net bulged again, Williams still in the centre of the park advanced on goal. He played a neat one two with Diallo at the edge of the area, carrying on his run past him and into the box. The shot was low and hard, beating the keeper Hutchings off to his right. 28 minutes played and it sat at two nil to Bath City, the day was panning out just as Harper and his team had hoped.

They weren’t finished yet however. A careless tackle gifted Bath City a free kick twenty yards or so from goal, just wide of the area between the touchline and the corner of the eighteen yard box. Iacovitti, freed from his fullback duties was in the box as were Gjokaj and Whitmore. Sommerville completed the complement of players and it would again be him that led the celebrations. Andi Thanoi whipped a cross into the area, easily clearing the two man wall. Gjokaj rose highest, heading the ball back across goal under challenge from Baggie. The ball still at head height found Sommerville at the edge of the six yard box, a powerful header onwards rippled the net and brought the score to three nil with six minutes of the half remaining.

As those six minutes ticked down the team on Poole’s bench scribbled in note pads and barked their irritation. The spectators were silent, save the one hundred or so who’d travelled down the A350. A rousing rendition of Shall we sing a sing for you had broken out. It was good spirited but the point was there none the less. The whistle that brought the first half to a close was welcomed by both sets of players and the dressing room Harper entered was excited and enthusiastic.

He tried not to let the players get too far ahead, it was only half way through the game and there was a lot of football still to be played. They were doing amazing work; they’d responded well to the difficult situation at first and reacted well to the changes requested by the bench. All in all it was more of the same in the second half please, and let’s get at them.

The second half started quickly, before all of the supporters had returned to the tin roofed stands they heard a roar from those who’d already found their seats or places to stand. The kick off was casual, the ball stroked out towards Williams who barely reacted to its movement. Poole Town stole the ball, Moore racing through space trying to make up for his dismal performance in the first half. Poole’s wingers had tucked right in, closing the spaces in the middle of the park – only fullbacks providing the width. Moore broke one tackle, then a second, looked to pick out a pass and found Sturridge open at the edge of the area. His chip over the defence left Sturridge one on one with Bath City’s Oli Davies. Sturridge calmly controlled the ball with the point of his right boot before lashing a venomous strike high with his left, cracking the crossbar and rebounding into the net. Three – one; surely nothing but a consolation goal, Harper could only hope.

As legs tired and players became slower on their feet the extra few days rest proved the difference between Bath and Poole. El Hadji Ba, usually a terrier in the middle constantly on the move to sniff out loose balls and wayward passes was running through treacle. Diallo who had terrorized defences with his pace and dribbling was suddenly no quicker than the defenders he looked to beat. Even Sommerville seemed nullified as the balls through to him were constantly a yard too quick or were intercepted before he could advance on them.

Murphey had been largely anonymous in the first half, despite the team’s overall good showing. He had the freshest legs however so it was El Hadji Ba who made way first, being replaced by Ball who slotted in at left back allowing Iacovitti to remain as the water carrier for the team. Diallo also had to be replaced, by the 60th minute he was dead on his feet. McCootie joined the fray and hadn’t even had chance to touch the ball when the game took another turn.

Exposed at the back a tiring Whitmore tugged the corner of a shirt before sliding in hard from the left, clattering Devlin and bringing a foul along with a yellow card. In the ensuing scramble in the area a bouncing ball fell to Bassele who, in the 64th, made it three two with all to play for.

The final change for Bath had nothing to do with tiredness. Whitmore, already booked once again went in somewhat more exuberantly than he perhaps needed to at the edge of the area. His upturned studs found the calf of the Poole Town striker, Marvin Brookes leaving the referee with no alternative. A second yellow in the space of a few minutes saw Alex Whitmore head for an early shower. While the resulting free kick came to nothing Bath would need to hang on for almost twenty minutes.

The space vacated by Whitmore was taken up by Iacovitti, Diallo made way and George Rigg would again make an appearance as a substitute in midfield. The front three would become a front two, Sommerville up top with Williams playing off him. In midfield Rigg would take the place in the hole, Thanoi and Murphey trying to stem the tide through the middle.

With a man down and tiring legs from first to last for the first time in the season Bath found themselves under the cosh. Thanoi, never the quickest, struggled to keep up with the pace of the game. Murphey, a backup at best was outmatched by his opposing number as Poole probed for the equalising goal. Only the actions of Gjokaj and Iacovitti kept Poole Town honest and the score unchanged.

As the game pressed on the crowd added their voices, roaring Poole on as Bath battened down the hatches and dug in. The fulltime whistle when it came had seen Bath perform a rear guard for twenty minutes, barely getting out of their own half. Without the first choice players in key positions and with a man disadvantage the Romans had been lucky to leave with all three points, in truth Harper felt a little like they’d robbed Poole of a point.

He shook hands with Tommy Kilick after the game and commended him on the spirit of his team, for a newly promoted side they might cause a lot of upsets if they play like that all season. Tommy congratulated Harper in turn on the points and the first half, saying he couldn’t wait for the return fixture at Twerton Park. Harper was less in the mood for a repeat performance however.

He was thundering as he banged open the dressing room door after the game, a Jekyll and Hyde performance Iwelumo had called it after the fulltime whistle had gone but Harper had a different take on it. The first words from Harper as he addressed the team left no illusions as to his opinion of the game. Had he realised he could be heard outside he might have chosen them more carefully, upon reflection though they fully summed up what he’d witnessed.

“What the fuck happened in that second half?!”
Part 19

The next few days passed quickly for Harper. After the game with Poole he considered whether he’d been a little harsh with the team. Going down to ten men had significantly affected the performance but they’d still done enough to hold on for the three points. What really concerned him however was how much the legs tired in the second half. He only spoke with Chris about his reservations over his reaction, it wouldn’t hurt the players to know their manager had teeth now and then.

The players were given a break after the match and the following few training sessions would focus on fitness and general health levels. Chris took the lead on training giving Harper chance to concentrate his focus elsewhere; the next game would be on the 3rd at home to Whitehawk who were firmly entrenched in mid-table obscurity. With six games coming in September it promised to be a busy month for Bath City.

Following the drop off in fitness and the overall tiredness of the squad Harper took the opportunity while freed from training duties to again press for a little support from upstairs. He spoke with Maggie over a coffee, arranging to sit down with Paul Williams the following day.

Sitting on the sofas in the little café around from Twerton Park it felt nice to be out of the office and slightly removed from the general busyness he’d adopted about the place. Harper had opted for a large black coffee. Maggie for her part had a tall latte placed in front of her, with a shot of sweet and nutty caramel syrup dropped in for good measure. Despite his insistence that he was fine without one Maggie had also arranged for a wedge of coffee and walnut cake to appear on the table beside his mug and a second one alongside it for herself.

“Paul is free tomorrow,” she started, checking the calendar on the tablet she’d taken from her large bag. “He’s playing golf in the morning but will beat the club from about twelve. Shall we put something in place for one?”

Harper would have answered but the hot coffee had scolded his tongue in his haste. He settled for a nodded head instead as it burnt his throat on the way down.

“Right, I’ve popped that in. I’ve sent a calendar invite for the both of you.”
“Thanks Maggie, and thanks for the cake too.”

She smiled and took a sip of her latte, placing the tablet down onto the top of her flowery canvas bag. The bag was like something from legend, every time someone at a meeting needed something – a pen, a pad, a tissue - her hand would dip into the bag and just like magic retrieve the needed item. “Oh not at all Harper, you looked like you needed a little something sweet was all.”

Maggie he’d realised had a habit of mothering people. It wasn’t a bad thing by any means, it was just that sometimes he had the feeling she saw everyone as her charges and not as colleagues or friends or bosses so to speak. She even mothered Lauri to some degree, checking in on her and occasionally popping by the studio with a coffee or a little cake, sometimes a sandwich or just to say hello on her way past. Harper was yet to go into the studio while Lauri was working, really he should make an effort to do so. He made a mental note and then on hearing her voice turned his attention back to Maggie.

“Was there anything in particular you wanted to speak about? Is there anything you’d like me to an agenda for the meeting?”

Harper paused for a moment, partially to give his tongue a chance to stop throbbing and partially to decide on the best wording to use.

“Yes there is actually. We need to talk about two things really, both of which relate to squad fitness. The first is the backroom staff; I want to make some changes and I need the club to support me with it. You don’t need to put it on the agenda specifically per say but I want a new physio and I want a fitness coach – we were dead on our feet against Poole in the second half and we’re barely touching September.” He took another tentative taste of the coffee – with his mouth still feeling burnt he could taste nothing at all.

“That rather brings me onto the second thing I wanted to raise; we’ve this new relationship with Bristol City, I want us to grab a couple of youngsters on loan from them for the rest of the season if we can. I want another midfielder and I want another forward; we’ve no depth beyond the first team and I don’t want that to come bite us.”

Maggie nodded and hummed through, quickly jotting a brief note on the tablet. She’d tidy it up and put something out a little more formally after she got back to her desk. The cake when he tried it on its own was sweet, slightly too sweet if he was being honest but with the coffee they did complement one another rather nicely. Maggie sipped her latte and ate a forkful or two of cake as they touched on a couple of other housekeeping matters. After a few minutes though the shop talk was over.

“How’s Lauri getting on, is she a little more comfortable with everything?”

“I think so, she’s getting there at least.” He at least hoped as much, “Finding the studio helped a lot but she still is a little, I don’t know, isolated maybe? We aren’t spending as much time together as we were and I suppose she just needed something to ground her a little more – stop her rolling round the house on her own so much.”

Maggie nodded. She’d been talking to Lauri a lot since the couple moved down to Bath. She saw a kindred spirit in her to a degree, a creative soul. Maggie liked her a lot and the feeling was reciprocated.

“I’ve asked if she’d like to help out with some of the engagement activities we’re doing, reaching out to the community and all that. I know Paul is really keen to move on that and I think she’d be just perfect. What do you think?”

Harper nodded, if it was something Lauri could get enthused over then he saw no reason why not to go for it – the worst she could do was say no. The two continued, talking briefly about Bath and about Edinburgh and all manner of inconsequential bits. Maggie suggested a new restaurant, the Boathouse just outside the town which was getting good reviews and implied that Lauri would probably appreciate a night there, just the two of them. For the second time Harper made a mental note.

The cake was finished off in short order as were the coffees. As Harper headed out the door he was in good spirits and Maggie – her mothering done for the day as far as Harper was concerned – was also feeling rather satisfied. Twenty minutes later he received the email notification for the meeting with Paul Williams.

That night he was waiting at home for Lauri when she got home, flowers in a vase on the table, a bottle of wine chilling and a Chinese ordered and on its way. They curled up on the sofa together, talked about the tattoos she had planned, leafing through her sketch pads and idea journals and just enjoying one another’s company. For one evening football was off the agenda. When they eventually went up to bed they curled in each others arms and when morning broke both felt refreshed and renewed.

Harper had gone into the meeting with his chairman armed with a folder of stats from the previous games along with some of his coaches’ reports. He anticipated some degree of a fight, perhaps a disagreement here or there. Paul however completely agreed with him; the team had looked tired and the second half had been a mess. The sending off could be blamed to some degree but the boys out there were shattered, it was plain to see.

He agreed that the squad depth was no where near where it needed to be – the first eleven were streets above the rest. While the plan was to develop youth only Chris Coade was ready for the first team at this stage although others were showing promise. They had a little bit of money available – not a lot – but a little and if it could be invested to improve things in the backroom, develop a more sustainable return on the investment rather than through another player or two then all the better. He was also pleased that Harper had seen the benefit of the affiliation with Bristol. By the close of the meeting Harper hadn’t opened the folder or leafed through the papers he’d prepped.

Harper left with authorisation to hire a second physiotherapist and a designated fitness coach – both part time but it was something at least. As he got back to his office he gave his chief scout a quick call about the youth teams at Bristol City. He wanted a review of options for both a forward and a midfielder by the end of the day, ideally someone with a bit about him in the centre of the park who’d fight and could be relied upon to support attacks as needed. The forward he’d like someone quick and pacey, a repurposed winger or someone used to playing in the hole would be ideal.

By the close of the next day, and just inside the window, Harper had two players on route to Twerton Park, Jack Warburton – an 18 year old box to box midfielder – and George Barker – a 20 year old forward come winger. The backroom team would also be welcoming a fitness coach on a two year contract, part time and a second physio, also part time on a single year deal. This would represent the first team either had worked with so there was a degree of uncertainty as to what they might bring. Still Harper chose to be optimistic.

Whitehawk were a good team and liked to attack although they’d been stung by some sloppy defending of late. Their habit of defending high up the pitch and harrying players could play into the hands of a counter attacking side, something Harper was keen to exploit. As he sat in his office reading through the scout report on his next opponent he had a gentle knock on his door and Maggie let herself in.

“There’s someone here to see you, says her name is Ava?”

Harper shuffled the papers and asked Maggie to invite her in. Ava swept into the room and her perfume filled the air, she had a presence about her and her eyes sparkled at Harper. He smiled and stood, offered a hand and asked her to sit down as Maggie offered her a drink before disappearing back through the door to procure one.

“What can I do for you, Ms. Foster, or did you just come for the coffee?”

She laughed warmly, “No Harper, I came because you have been avoiding me. I wanted to remind myself what you looked like.”

Harper vacillated slightly, he had been rather busy – new signings and the like. As Maggie returned with coffees Ava made a few notes about the signings, asked for an official statement about both the upcoming Whitehawk game and the dealings the club had made in the previous few days. She took a few further notes here and there and Harper belatedly remembered to cover a few of the items on his desk, it was safe to say she’d distracted him rather well.

After a few more minutes she addressed the elephant in the room.

“So, when are you free? I had thought I’d see you after the Whitehawk game, I’ll be covering your game again.” Before continuing she slid out of the chair and made her way around the desk, perching on the edge, leaning towards him. He slowly took her in, starting with his eyes at hers and dropping down to her legs, before returning to her face, lingering here and there. “I want to see you Harper, don’t you want to see more of me?”

The last syllables were almost breathed out. Her lips parted slightly were met by his. Outside on the training field Chris Iwelumo oversaw a physical session, short interplay and bursts of activity; sprints and stretches followed by more measured exertions. With one of the critical pieces of the team missing due to suspension other players would need to step up and the fitness levels had to be the focus.

Twenty minutes later Chris blew a whistle to signal the close of the session and the team filed towards the changing rooms and team facilities. A few of them noticed a taller, dark haired woman leaving just as they arrived, her hair untied and slightly tousled, a little out of breath and with a spring in her step making her way towards the car park.
Part 20

“That’s the way lads – get stuck in!”

A single voice from the crowd cut through the background thrum, clear as crystal. Iacovitti quickly got back to his feet, leaving the crumpled winger still on his back. The ball some ten feet away was swiftly collected and lashed clear by Gjokaj, the big Albanian captain of Bath City to a generous applause.
As Whitehawk’s number 7, a thin lad in his early twenties limped upright and took a ginger step or two the crowd began a further braying, mocking chorus – She fell over! She fell over!

The first twenty minutes had been a messy, physical affair. Whitehawk had as expected come with a stout back four and a five man midfield. With the exception of three players the entire side stood around six feet tall or more. A flair passing team this was not; a rugged lower league team built around physicality and an indomitable spirit was more in the mould. The style clash had been jarring at times but still Harper was enjoying the day.

Lauri was busy in the studio, completing the work on one of the Four Romans as the studio had taken to referring to the students. The radio in the corner gave spotty coverage of the game, interspersed between pop rock and local interest pieces. The usual punk and heavier music was always replaced on match days with a local station, anyone who’d keep Lauri informed.

Up in the stands Maggie stood a few seats from Paul Williams and the rest of the board. A few invited guests and potential sponsors also huddled together, a cluster of suit jackets and ties in a seat of black and white.

On the far touchline two reporters stood taking notes, Ava and a man Harper had never seen before. He was short and quite round, wearing a blue suit and tie with thick glasses and a thinning pate of dark, oily looking hair. Ava had waved subtly to Harper, acknowledging him as he’d taken to the pitch with the players to a backdrop of AC/DC. She was wearing a blue coat, a patterned dress ending just above the knee and high boots ending mid way up the calf. Despite her being almost the width a pitch away Harper had logged the details of her outfit in little more than a glance.

Back on the turf at Twerton Park the referee was busily inking a name into his book as he held the yellow card high in the air. Finally sick of the undue cynicism of the play of both sides he’d finally opted to take a name. After a break down the left Jason Williams had found Ideniran open at the edge of the area chasing into the space cleared by Sommerville’s run ahead. A hand had found his shirt collar and tugged him back, with no attempt made to play the ball the young loanee had been dragged to the ground by Whitehawk’s David Ijaha. The free kick would be taken by Thanoi who stood over the ball twenty yards out from the goal.

In the studio a mobile phone went off, Lauri’s client had received a message commenting on the foul and asking if he’d be down in time for the second half. Lauri said he probably should be, it would depend on how much he carried on fidgeting. Taking the good natured hint he put his phone back down and lay back on the table.

Thanoi waited patiently for the whistle before taking his run up. The wall of five parted with the shot which easily beat the diving keeper but struck the bottom of the post. Quickest to react was Jason Williams who pounced for one nil, the second goal of the type of the season. The crowd roared; the PA system burst into song and the bench leapt to their feet! In the studio Lauri pulled the tattoo gun away just in time, a roar of “Yes!” quickly followed by a reproachful “Sorry” as he settled himself back down for the second time in as many minutes.

As Harper listened to the crowd, took in the joy and excitement and watched his players wheel off in celebration he made a mental note to change the tune to something more reflective of the spirit of the team. If they came out to AC/DC surely they could do better than the brassy pomp of the current faire. The thought left as soon as it formed, carried away by the mood and the need for returning attention that the kick off would bring.

Maggie overheard Paul Williams and another member of the board discussing the squad on the pitch.

“No, neither of them are starting today but Warburton is on the bench. See that one there – no that one, warming up – yeah, with the haircut. Good player, big things expected. Big things. What’s that? No, not this week but probably before long he’ll get a bit of game time.”

She turned her eyes in the direction of the pointed finger and looked at Jack Warburton. He was quite thickly built, rounded shoulders – looked like he’d be more at home playing rugby than football but under his mop of hair his face was a picture of determination.

“Barker isn’t on the bench – that’s him sat on the seats behind, next to Cooper the physio. Yeah, you’re right, a bit like a younger McManaman – if he’s half as talented we’ll be onto a winner!”

Ava for her part had noted the free kick and goal scorer, logging the time and in short hand the details she’d like to reference. Maybe twenty yards from her the short, plump gentleman was making similar notes. She didn’t recognize him, he wasn’t in her usual circles but he seemed to be taking a vested interest in proceedings.

By forty minutes Oli Davies had touched the ball only twice, there had been a second yellow card this time for Bath’s Diallo for little more than handbags and only two more shots taken in anger, both by Bath. Bath weren’t missing Whitmore, Iacovitti and Gjokaj had marshalled the centre of defence with consummate skill. At right back Chris Coade while restricted by a lack of space to advance into had done his defensive duties without issue or incident. On the left side Ball hadn’t disappointed and despite being on his unfavoured side had made few if any errors.

The half time team talk as a result was quite straight forward, you’re doing well but you could be doing better. Fitness hadn’t seemed an issue, instead the difficulty seemed to be in breaking down a team who looked intent to sit deep and defend, using their physical tools and aerial abilities to pose questions if the opportunity arose. Fortunately for Bath clever interplay in the middle of the park between Thanoi, Ba and Ideniran was helping to limit these opportunities despite a resolute defence serving up few opportunities of their own to exploit.

On the 60th minute Harper made his first change, Diallo already on a yellow made way for young Jack Warburton to make his debut. Ideniran was pushed into the slot vacated by Diallo with Warburton slotting in as a box to box midfielder to provide a little more muscle in the centre of the park.

The change reaped rewards a few minutes later, Warburton out muscling Pinney laid a through-ball into the space between midfield and attack where Ideniran was prowling. The ball found the feet of the young midfielder who played a first time pass through the forest of players and into the space before Sommerville. An outstretched toe caught the ball, the goalkeeper flapped and the net bulged for two nil!

The celebration came on the 67th minute, just as Lauri was finishing cleaning down her station at the studio. She allowed herself a quiet exclamation of joy and continued wiping down the seat with hygiene wipes. Across the divide Needles smiled at her while his gun clicked and pulsed, finishing the line work on his client’s shoulder blade.

Maggie gave a little whoop, quickly replaced by a much more dignified clap as though for a moment she’d forgotten where she was. Looking down towards the technical area and the dugouts she offered an enthusiastic thumbs up to Harper as she caught his eye. Close by Paul Williams trumpeted again about the value of Warburton and what he could add to the team.

For his part Harper readied a further substitute, instructing McCootie to start a full warm up as he’d be taking the field shortly. Once play resumed he sent the notice down to the fourth official, McCootie would replace Ideniran. Another player who’s race was almost run was El Hadji Ba, he was beginning to tire a little and while still easily the match of the players around him a heavy month of fixtures weighed in Harper’s mind. By the 75th minute both changes had been made, McCootie replacing Ideniran and Murphey replacing El Hadji Ba with Warburton taking up the deeper role of the midfield three.

Whitehawk offered little in the way of response; like for like changes brought no change in their style or approach. As time ticked away the game petered out once again into a messy, chaotic contest. Four yellow cards were issued in the final ten minutes, three to Whitehawk but one to Dan Ball – a cynical, late challenge caused as much by his tiring legs as anything else.

At full time the PA sparked into life, the fans cheered and Harper shook hands with his opposing number. The players filed off the pitch to applause and a chorus of chants and songs. Chris Iwelumo led the players inside the changing rooms, Harper gave them five minutes address congratulating them on their play and in breaking down a stubborn opponent who had come looking for the draw. Gjokaj and Iwelumo both reiterated the manager’s words and touched on the performances of one or two players for specific note.

Harper took the opportunity to steal out as he typically did at this point. A few more of the fans recognized him this time and stopped him for a selfie or two, an autograph or just to shake his hand. It felt nice, that warm appreciation. He drank in the excitement and the mood of the fans for a few minutes and then turned to head back to the club facilities.

Once back in his office Harper enjoyed a quick drink with Whitehawk’s manager and exchanged a few pleasantries.

“You’re looking good this year, hard to account for all your lads on the break.”
Harper nodded, “Thanks Alan, we’re hoping so. You gave a good account of yourselves too though, tough to break down. I’ll look forward to the game at East Brighton Park.”

Once Alan Payne had left, returning to his own players Harper checked his phone. As usual there was the congratulatory message from Lauri and one from Paul Williams. He also had one from Ava.

Congratulations on the win Mr Tanner, you can collect your prize tonight. Where are you taking me? Third date tonight so you’d better have something good planned ;p x

Harper smiled and tapped out a reply.

I’ve booked us a table, you took me somewhere nice so thought I’d return the favour. X

The two messaged back and forth a few more times, flirty and intimate messages. He allowed himself time to see off the majority of his players, catch a few minutes with Paul and the board and then headed back to his office. He changed quickly, the hoody and t-shirt replaced by a shirt quite casual but nice. It was one he’d worn to the end of year awards at Hibernian, it was a well tailored, well fitting shirt and he liked the way he looked in it. He gave one last look in the mirror and then grabbed his leather jacket and headed out the door.

In the car he read a final message from Ava.

Are you going to tell me where I’m meeting you or are you keeping it a secret? X

He turned the key in the ignition and tapped out a reply.

Meet me at The Boathouse, its supposed to be really good. x
Part 21

Harper had got home late the night before. Lauri had half expected him to; he’d told her before the game that he was likely going to be staying on with a few things. She sorted herself something to eat, some spiced rice and chicken and had a glass of wine while cuddling Fitz on the sofa. In the morning she stole out of the bed, kissed her sleeping husband on the forehead and headed out for an early run with Fitz.

After the run she’d agreed to meet Maggie and some of the supporters groups regarding community outreach events. They were planning a fun day; an excuse to get the supporters enthused about Bath City while hopefully doing some good in the community. Maggie had a vision of face painting for the kids, football themed games and contests but more than just that, a celebration of Bath itself and an avenue through which the club could support the development and opportunities for youngsters. There would be music, arts and food, something to entice people who otherwise wouldn’t come to Twerton Park to get involved.

The run was refreshing. Fitz only tried to trip her twice by darting across her path mid stride and once she had him off the lead and running free the two of them let off a little steam. From the canal tow path she’d discovered a large open field, a playing field of sorts which she’d first furtively ventured into a couple of weeks earlier. Taking a ball and tossing it for Fitz she’d almost expected someone to tell her she was trespassing. On seeing a group of kids on bikes tearing back and forth she decided that was unlikely and had loosened her guard. Now it was becoming a regular stop every few days.

She circled the perimeter at a jog, returning to the tow path at which point Fitz again ended up on the leash. He’d enjoyed his run and his spit hung in thick webs across his panting face as they made the slightly slower jog back.

Harper hadn’t awoke when they returned. Fitz bolted upstairs and curled up on the floor next to the bed while Lauri took off her clothes and jumped in the shower. As the hot water caressed her shoulders and fogged the mirror she thought over the meeting she had agreed to. It would be at the café attached to Twerton Park, Paul Williams wouldn’t be there but had authorised Maggie to represent the club in these early dealings. Two supporters’ representatives would be present as would a few club officials at various levels, a councillor and a youth engagement officer from the local Arts and Culture body. As far as Lauri was aware she was the only ‘outsider’ included in the mix.

By the time she was dry and dressed, her hair trussed up in a high bun to keep it out of the way, it was just after nine. Lauri had toyed with making a bit of an effort, trying to fit in with the status of the people she imagined she’d be meeting. In the end she opted for a white t shirt with cut off sleeves showing off her tattoos, a pair of artfully ripped jeans and dark worker style boots. Over that she threw her leather jacket and tied a neckerchief loosely around her head. Part of her saw Wendy the Welder when she spotted her reflection in the microwave, so she struck a muscular pose and, chuckling to herself, discarded the wrap.

Putting a pot of coffee on she left a note on the kitchen counter for Harper.

Morning sunshine – late night?

There’s coffee in the pot and a pastry in the bag on the side.
I’ll let you know how it goes.
Pester me x

The drive into Twerton Park wasn’t bad. On a Sunday morning as fresh and crisp as that one few people had ventured out yet, the day was still too new. As a result she made it to Twerton Park in record time, arriving only a few minutes after Maggie herself had.

“My goodness you’re early sweetheart! Can I get you a coffee?” Without waiting for an answer Maggie had shouted over to Rachel behind the counter, ordering two large lattes.

“Morning Maggie, thanks for the brew pet. How was it last night, get everything done?”

Slightly nonplussed Maggie asked what the everything was.

“Didn’t Harper have a meeting with Paul and yourself last night?”

Maggie shook her head, “No not with us love, that was earlier on.”

“Oh,” Lauri took off her jacket. “I just assumed, don’t worry about it.”

By the time Lauri had hung her jacket on the coat rack near the plush black sofas Maggie was bustling around and the coffees had arrived the various others had started to filter in. There were representatives from three supporters groups, one of whom had helped with the volunteering and promotion of the club for a number of years. The local Arts and Culture committee had sent a young lady in her early twenties, clearly keen and interested with more than a little of the Lauri about her. A few club officials in different capacities, press officers and community officers, made up the numbers. The local councillor had also made an appearance, an older lady with perfectly manicured nails and pearl earrings. At first the quietest of the assemblage she soon warmed into it, softened her initially harsh demeanour and offered both constructive and meaningful contributions.

One of the supporters’ representatives was a man called Graham, quite tall and perhaps sixty. He had a slight paunch and his very grey almost white hair was clipped very short, a hint of a beard was revealed in stubble on his cheeks and chin. The thick caterpillar of a moustache which graced his top lip twitched slightly as he smiled and made his greetings. He’d been helping with club events for years, selling programmes and manning turnstiles as a volunteer years before and had brought his daughter and nephews for years as they grew. Lauri learned he’d been very active in fundraising for the supporter buy out and had always been vocal and proud of club and city. Now he brought a grandson and firmly believed that through outreach the club could really give something back.

“Kids these days, its all playstations and iphones – they don’t kick a ball around or ride bikes anymore. If we can get the kids excited about the club – excited about the town – hook ‘em while they’re young then we won’t lose them to Bristol or Chelsea,” involuntarily his nose slightly wrinkled and Lauri supressed a smile. “I want us to be proud of the town – proud of the club. If we can get kids excited again, wearing a Bath shirt instead of a Manchester City one or a Barcelona one then it could only help the town.”

The councillor agreed. The girl representing Arts and Culture suggested a link to the various festivals in the city, already established and with a firm following. While it was a good suggestion the main one wasn’t until May, they all agreed that contacting them and establishing a potential link was a good move but perhaps not the point of the initial meeting. They wanted to move forward with something soon – the October half term would be ideal to put on several events but if in the meantime they could organise a taster, a pre-season friendly to test the waters as Graham jokingly referred to it then they’d be in a much better position to attack the main event.

At this point they began to discuss what they could do to gently ease people in. They intended to host the event at Twerton Park, using what facilities they could and opening up the car park to hold stalls and activities, perhaps a bouncy castle or similar. Food could be provided partially by the café however food trucks and maybe ice cream vans or similar would likely be a good idea – Maggie made profuse notes throughout on her tablet and casually assigned various action points to both herself and the others present.

After joining in solely in a support capacity Maggie finally turned the focus of everyone’s attention to Lauri.

“Now Lauri here has already done quite a bit to help boost our image with younger people I’m sure she won’t mind me saying.” Maggie smiled disarmingly and Lauri felt the blood warm her cheeks, “She’s a tattoo artist in town – a very talented one – and she recently finished these,” Maggie held up the tablet, a composite image of the Four Romans tattoos splashed across the screen. “I think you’ll all agree they’re very striking.”

Lauri smiled still further at Maggie’s comment, they weren’t to Maggie’s taste but she was trying so hard to make it sound like they were. Lauri would certainly bring that up over coffee and perhaps a slice of cake somewhere down the line. There was plenty of opportunity to jokingly suggest similar artwork for her favourite Executive Assistant, the devilish part of her wondered just how far she’d be able to push that one.

“The men in the picture are students at the University; none of them are actually from Bath but they’ve been so taken with our city and the culture developing at the club that they had these to mark their time here. You’ll notice they all incorporate the club crest and colours and if I press just here,” She flicked a finger across the screen before turning it back to face the party, “it’s getting a lot of attention on twitter. Hash tag Four Romans is apparently trending quite a bit both in and out of tattoo circles.”

Several comments were made on the tattoos, questions of how long they’d taken and whether there would be interest in doing similar ones in future were raised before Graham put something else out.

“Could you do that with pens? What I mean is could you draw something like that, sketch something out like that for us to use as a picture, an image for these events?”

Lauri had no issues with that at all, she even suggested she could come up with several options for them to look through and make a decision from there. If they really wanted to get the kids engaged she continued she could use pens and markers to do some of her work on people, like a tattoo that would wash off. What she’d put out there as a joke seemed to get more traction than she really had intended, she tried to retract it as the joke it was but some of the assembled thought there could be some value to it. Perhaps as a prize for one contest or other. Maggie made further notes and before much longer the meeting was adjourned.

The councillor and Arts and Culture representative made their excuses and headed off, as did a couple of the others. Maggie stayed for another coffee as did Lauri, both planning to take the excuse to have a catch up. Graham also stayed, as did the press officer who wanted to catch Maggie’s ear over something.

As Lauri headed to the counter to order a couple more coffees and a pair of slices of the walnut cake she realised someone was stood behind her. Turning she saw Graham who smiled at her genuinely.

“I just wanted to ask if you can pass your thanks onto Harper for me, he’s a real gentleman.”

Lauri slightly was slightly caught off guard.

“Sorry, should explain. He signed an autograph for my nephew – well great nephew – Elio and got a couple of the players to come out and say hi to us. Meant the world to Elio, really it did. He’s actually got the signed match programme in a frame on his wall at home.”

The penny dropped for Lauri, Harper had half mentioned being asked for an autograph again for the first time in years. She told Graham Harper enjoyed it almost as much, it meant a lot to him for the fans to like him and appreciate him.

“Oh we do, really we do. He’s changing the culture of the club – we all went in together to raise the funds, it’s our club is this and we wanted to own it, to drive it forward. We’ve rather hitched our wagon to Harper and I have to say he’s the best thing to happen to the club in years!”

Lauri nodded and swiped her card across the chip reader to pay for the coffees and cakes, “Can I get you anything?” She offered politely.

“No I’m going to have to get going, seeing my daughter for lunch. I just wanted to ask you to pass that on to him if you don’t mind too much.”

Again Lauri said she would and picked up the tray, which Graham insisted on carrying for her back to the table where Maggie and the press officer were still talking.

“He really is great with kids, you too I imagine to hear you today. Do you two have any little ‘uns running around underfoot?”

Lauri’s eyes took on a slightly far away look as she answered, “No, no we don’t. We, well we,” she paused again.

“No,” she eventually continued, “never the right time.”

Graham put the tray down and smiled at her warmly. “It never is love. You look after yourself. See you at the next meeting.” He waved to Maggie and headed off out of the door.

Lauri sat silently for a moment. It had all started out as such a lovely day. She bit her lip, gulped a mouthful of coffee a little too quickly and reached for a napkin.

Outside the traffic had begun to build up a little, people rushing too and fro. Back home Harper rolled over, tossed a leg out of bed and sat up – the sole of his foot brushing the sleeping back of Fitz. Near the tow path two children kicked and chased a ball playing at being Messi and Ronaldo while a third child ran nearby and attempted a tackle, a black and white shirt on him with Gjokaj across the shoulders.
Part 22

“You alright sweetheart, you seem distracted?”

Lauri had only been half listening to Maggie. The coffee was still warm but wasn’t hot any longer, the cake on the plate beside her lay untouched.
“Sorry Maggie May, what were you saying?”

Maggie smiled at her reassuringly, a maternal look of care. It was one Lauri had been on the receiving end of a time or two of late.

“Nothing important.” She took a sip of her coffee and gave Lauri time to do the same. “So go on then, what’s wrong? You seemed all chirpy until the meeting broke, is something the matter?”

Lauri took a while to open up. She and Harper had only talked about children once or twice, while he was playing. Each time it had come up between them it hadn’t been the right time; he was moving clubs and wasn’t sure how it would play out or they had a house move and thought it might be a bit too much to take on all at once. They’d tried to be sensible about it all but despite all the common sense and the rational reasons it had hurt. Lauri was ready to be a mother; at least she was as ready as she could imagine herself being. It wouldn’t be like last time, she’d be ready.

When his injury happened they’d finally decided it might be time. He was settled at a club, she was settled in a job and they had a little money squirreled away for a cushion. She stopped birth control, began to psyche herself up to making a concerted attempt at becoming pregnant and then the injury had ended Harper’s career. Suddenly it wasn’t the right time. Harper needed to recover and they needed to see how it would play out. She didn’t tell Harper when she’d restarted birth control; he had enough on his plate. Instead she went back to work, carried on as though nothing was wrong.

When the Bath City job opening came it was another period of flux, another set of changes and a further disruption to their settled life. Again Lauri decided that time wasn’t right, she didn’t even talk to Harper about it, there wasn’t any point.

When they first started getting serious they had talked about children, about the future and in Lauri’s case the past too. Lauri didn’t want children, it was still too raw for her to consider and Harper was in no rush. After they got married and grew with one another Lauri began to see Harper as a future father, she saw him chasing between trees on Arthur’s Seat, hunting for crabs on Portobello Beach. It would be different, it could be perfect if only circumstances and time would allow.

The half drunk coffee was cold by the time Lauri stopped talking. Maggie, her hand on Lauri’s arm was reflective and didn’t press, letting her friend talk as much or as little as she wanted. They left shortly thereafter, agreeing to meet to walk the dogs together and get some fresh air the following day. For her part Lauri felt a little better. She hadn’t quite been prepared for the up swell of emotion; it wasn’t something she’d exactly been anticipating as a result she’d been slightly sideswiped.

Before she turned the key in the ignition she tapped a quick message out on her phone to Harper,

Just leaving Maggie, home in a bit just fancy a drive. Love you. X

She turned out from the car park at Twerton Park, pointed the car out of the city and drove out into the greenery. She opened the window, turned her music up and tuned out from everything. In the back of her mind a memory niggled at her, an ignored and neglected part of her ate at her. She tried to smile, tried to sing along to the music; before she quite knew where she was she’d made it into Bristol, the motorway spreading out to the North would eventually lead back to Edinburgh. She headed around the junction and despite the temptation she turned south, left the M5 and headed down Gloucester Road and into the city.

For Harper the days passed quickly. A break of only three days brought them to a home game against Oxford City. Oxford started well, pressed and tried to stretch the play but over the 90 minutes Bath City were a match for them. Retaining their impressive start to the season Bath City ran out 3 – 1 winners after a brace from Jason Williams and a late header from Kieran Sommerville cancelled out the early Scott Davies strike for Oxford.

In the office after the game Harper relaxed into his chair. A five minute chat with his opposite number of a drink had gone off fine but it was clear Justin Merritt had expected more of his team. Alone again Harper could hear the players in the changing room next door singing and enjoying their victory. His phone went off with a message just as a knock came on the door.
“Come on in.” Harper slid the phone to one side, next to his notepad he’d quietly filled with text during the game.

The door opened then closed and into the seat opposite Harper sat George Rigg.


“Hiya Riggsy, shouldn’t you be getting changed?”

George Rigg still wore his kit although he’d taken off his boots and removed his pads. Spending his time on the bench as an unused substitute meant Rigg hadn’t had chance to muddy his kit in anger, the drill top he still wore a stark reminder that he hadn’t been needed.

“I wanted a word if I can boss; I need to talk to you about game time.”

Harper had seen this coming.

“We spoke about this not too long ago Riggsy. You don’t want to play fullback, you want to play centre mid. We’ve brought up Chrissy Coade at fullback; he’s doing well there, really coming into his own. Middle of the park was always one of our strongest areas – you knew that.”

“I didn’t know you were going to bring in a fucking kid from Bristol to replace me though!”

Harper took a breath and silently counted to ten.

“You knew you wouldn’t be first choice, or second choice. We went through it when you first brought this up. If we’re being honest Riggsy you knew you’d be a backup and nothing more in midfield. The team needed depth and we needed cover, Warburton has come in to provide that. He’s only a backup himself really, rotation at best. If anyone has a right to be annoyed at his arrival it should be Murphey, he isn’t in here pissing and whinging though he’s getting on with it.”

“You aren’t being fair here boss, I came in, I put the hours in at fullback. I deserve a shot in midfield! I was a midfielder before playing right back, I only did that for injury cover but then you come in and suddenly I’m a fullback and nothing more? You’re bringing in new players, replacing guys who’ve been here for years, filling the team with loan players in the middle of the park. What about loyalty?”

Harper paused for a moment, trying to read George Rigg’s emotions and organise his thoughts a little more. When he finally spoke it was in a measured tone, calm and chill. There was an edge to the voice, even George Rigg could read the danger signs in the quiet delivery.

“Do you want some advice? We’ve a cup game coming up, FA Cup 2nd Qualifying Round in a week or two. I will be rotating things up at that point. Put your head down; show me why you deserve to be rotated into the mix instead of carping on like a little bitch with a skinned knee otherwise you can keep this up and see where it gets you.”

George stared at the edge of Harper’s desk before moving his eyes across the wall behind Harper, the locker, the mirror, the walking stick leaning in the corner near his leather jacket all the while sitting back in the chair slouching down. To Harper he was a picture of petulance.

“Right now we’ve Ideniran, Ba, Thanoi, Warburton, you, Murphey, Frankie Artus all trying to squeeze into three slots. Two guys I’m expecting to push forward and support the front line leaving one to sit in deeper, police the hole and win back the ball. The skills you were learning as a fullback should push you towards the deeper role but I’m assuming you want the more forward role? You don’t like the defensive side of the game, fair enough but the fullbacks we use – the way I ask you to play – they’re hybrid fullback / wing backs; they’re the only wide player in the formation. Every cross, every wide approach will go through the fullbacks, every attack down the flank is driven by the fullbacks. So maybe that isn’t what you want, maybe I’m wrong about it.” He took a breath. “Tell me George, what do you want?”

George Rigg was silent for a moment, refusing to make eye contact. After a minute he sat a little higher and straighter in the chair and turned his gaze up to Harper.

“I want to be a midfielder and I want to play in the centre of the park.” A moment passed in silence between them before George continued. “In a year or two or whenever you leave Bath all the fullbacks will go back to being defenders, the midfielders will stay as midfielders and everything you’ve tried to do here will be forgotten. This Famous Five experiment might be working now but it won’t forever, you can’t ask a defender to play like a winger – you can’t ask a group of lads from the fucking Mendips to play like they’re from Buenos Aires or Brazil. It doesn’t work like that!”

Harper laughed. Rigg had made his mind up; there’d be no changing it.

“I think you need to get changed before you say something you really can’t take back.”

George Rigg pushed the chair back and stood up. He swung the door open and, leaving the office door wide open, marched out into the corridor. A few seconds later Harper heard the changing room door open and slam shut. He got to his feet and closed the door, for all the world fighting back the urge to go after Rigg.

When back at his desk he picked up his phone to drop a message to Chris Iwelumo, he’d need to speak with his assistant over the whole Rigg issue. The phone still had an unopened message to read. He clicked the screen, opening the message. The message when it opened was from Ava,

Congratulations on the win – shame I couldn’t be at the game, my dad said it was a good one. I’ve been at Woodspring Stadium, covering the Gulls Gloucester game. Got a hotel room here if you fancy joining me? X

Harper smiled and his fingers chased across the screen.

You’ve no idea how tempted I am – could do with cheering up. Game was good, good result just a bit of shit to deal with now and I’d rather not. X

He tapped out the message to Chris; he wanted to see him in his office ASAP. He wanted to put a nail in the Rigg issue sooner rather than later.
Seconds later his phone lit up again. Chris had replied, he was on his way. Harper walked across to the locker, thumbed the combination and pulled out a bottle of whiskey and two small glasses. He poured one for himself and another for Chris. He didn’t drink all that often but occasionally it was that or lose his rag completely.

As he took a small pull on the drink his phone lit up again on the desk. Opening the message took his breath away.

Sure I can’t tempt you Mr Tanner? X

Beneath the words was a picture, clearly showing Ava’s reflection in a mirror. She was wearing a lacy black bra and matching knickers, in the background a large bed and a bottle of wine with two glasses could clearly be made out. Another message came through as he was still digesting the image, an address and room number.

The door opened and in stepped Chris.

“Everything alright boss, where’s the fire?”

“Hey Chris, sit down; you’ve a glass on the desk. We need to talk about Riggsy. Again.” He took another mouthful of his drink and eased himself into his chair. As he did he sent a message to Lauri,

Hey L, bit of an issue with Riggsy – he’s being a dick again. Me and Chris going to have a look into it, might need to see Paul Williams over it. I’ll be home late tonight, get yourself something to eat and I’ll see you tomorrow. Love you x

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