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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
Po Red5's avatar Group Po Red5 2017-10-24 11:31
gb 33 posts 1 likes joined Jul 10, 2015
Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not going to piss about here Harper, we need a manager – I need a manager – and I know who I want; I want you. So, how about it; fancy bringing football to a rugby town?”
"There have only been two world class goalkeepers; one was Lev Yashin, the other was the German boy who played for Manchester City."
Po Red5's avatar Group Po Red5 2017-10-27 14:45
gb 33 posts 1 likes joined Jul 10, 2015
Part 2

The decision hadn’t been as hard to make as he’d expected when first laying eyes on the ground. He’d finished the coffee while Paul went through his plans for the future and where the club wanted to be in the next three, five and ten years. Harper had liked what he’d heard.

In the first three years they planned to invest in the academy, develop youngsters so that they could offer something back to the community as well as developing a community partnership scheme to help the local area flourish. They’d targeted promotion in the second season up to the Conference National – the top tier of English Amateur Football – followed by a season of consolidation before a push on in year four. For a team that had only avoided relegation by the skin of their teeth that was a bold statement.

In the first five the primary goal was to achieve success with the academy and develop the training facilities alongside sourcing a series of affiliate clubs in the lower reaches to help blood those developing young players. During the fifth season they were targeting a promotion run. Two promotions in five seasons was an ambitious timescale but Harper didn’t think it unfeasible; if anything it made him eager to start on the task.

The ten year plan made for interesting discussion. By the tenth season the community group under Paul Williams wanted to have Bath City challenging for promotion to the Championship, with a well developed academy structure feeding young products from Somerset, Wiltshire and Dorset directly into the first team. The aim was a financially sound platform from which the club could further grow and develop, achievable steps year on year built on a foundation of “a certain way of playing”. Kids would come through the youth ranks playing Team Bath Football. They’d go through the youth squads playing Team Bath Football. Eventually they’d make a first team start playing in a team solidly grounded on a ten year history of playing Team Bath Football.

By the time the meeting had rolled around to potential budgets for the year, initial goals and what projections for funding looked like – along with his expected salary and terms – Harper was pretty much sold.

Once his footballing career was over Harper Tanner had immediately turned his attention to coaching. He’d already completed an introductory FA badge at the time of his injury. He wasn’t a big enough name – or a good enough player – to have earned enough to never need to work again following the end of his career. Being an intelligent and self aware man he’d put things in place for the day when he would have to hang up his boots. His only grievance with it was that it had all happened so suddenly and so irrevocably.

With his leg still heavily braced and needing a stick or a wheelchair to help him about Harper had completed the first step of the coaching pyramid, working towards the end goal of being fully qualified and holding fairly all the badges he’d ever need. He spoke with Pat Fenlon, his former manager at Hibs but now at Shamrock Rovers, a stones throw from where Harper himself had grown up. Pat had always known the promise in Harper, his tactical awareness and creativity on paper was fantastic, his easy going nature was disarming and he was a popular player in the dugout and the dressing room. His talent however was what had always held him back as a player.

Pat told Harper that with the badges he already had or was planning on working towards he should speak with Alan Stubbs, the then manager of Hibs about a possible place on the coaching staff. While Pat would have loved to have brought him back to South Dublin there just wasn’t the money in the Irish game to justify it. After some back and forth, some brokered by Fenlon himself and some by Tanner and his agent a contract was drafted and Harper took up residence as one of the U-16 coaches at Hibs, the club he loved.

Drawing on the legacy and memory of the Hibs legends of yesteryear Harper Tanner began developing tactics and strategies, playing around with an homage to the Famous Five – Hib’s greatest ever strike force, five of the best ever to grace Scottish football.

Harper’s U-16 dominated on the training pitch and after only four games he began coaching and managing them fully, setting up training plans and drawing out their tactics. The U-16s, guided by Harper swept aside all before them, cruising to the league title in effortless style. The football they played was gutsy and aggressive; sweeping counter attacks with fullbacks serving as the only wide men, a front three tucked in close with one dropping into a wing position to support the fullback only if absolutely required always leaving two in and around the box at any time. Two of the central three in midfield looked to press forward whenever they could, arriving late for an attack as an extra option or barrelling forward to support the wide men while the third played a combative, belligerent role as a ball winning play spoiler. The system was quick and fluid, the goal was always to get forward and attack.

Scottish schoolboys can’t be taught how to play this way – they aren’t Dutch or Spanish, he was told by other more traditional coaches. At the end of that first season they’d stopped telling him what Scottish schoolboys could and couldn’t be taught to do.

Harper had played enough football as a centre back and occasional anchor man to know he hated people running at him, hated numerous attackers at once and hated fluid tactics where people served versatile hybrid roles. He liked a striker to face him as a striker, a midfielder to stay in midfield and a fullback to defend his flanks not transition into a winger with the turn of possession. He built the game plan around what he’d hated playing against and what always seemed to work against him. The game plan was devastatingly effective.

Pulling up in his car outside the training ground Harper knew he had a lot to prove. An untested manager taking the reins of a club on the back of one of their poorest seasons in living memory; he wasn’t sure why he’d let them talk him into it. Then he remembered the way Paul Williams had talked about the football his U-16s had been playing, the performances he was drawing out of kids from the estates in Edinburgh. He smiled at the thought of what his wife had said as he rang her from the forecourt of the hire-car firm back at Bristol Airport to tell her they were moving to Bath. She’s sounded so excited that is was infectious to him.

That had been two weeks ago. In that time he’d met the board, met the press, met his backroom staff and spoken several times with the current captain. His wife, Lauri was back home waiting to see how things panned out before considering quitting her job and joining him in the South. His plan was simple; to develop a more mature version of the tactic he’d employed with Hibs and instil it in the squad from the youth team right through the reserves and on into the first team. He’d need the right backroom staff to support him though. He’d need a lot of new faces. He’d need more than the meagre trappings of a single coach, single physio and a part time assistant.

Closing his car door he marched across the car park and up to the door of the admin building and with it Paul William’s office. The players were due to arrive in the next couple of hours for the first training session under the new manager, a couple had already parked up and were eating breakfast in the café attached. As he knocked sharply before stepping inside he was aware of a few faces watching him through the window from above their plates and bowls. He chose not to look up, let them think he hadn’t noticed them or the rather greasy food they’d opted for.

Paul Williams for his part was just in the middle of a sausage and bacon butty with probably too much red sauce as Harper stepped inside. Before he could say anything Harper pulled out a chair and sat down.

“Paul, we need to talk.”
"There have only been two world class goalkeepers; one was Lev Yashin, the other was the German boy who played for Manchester City."
Po Red5's avatar Group Po Red5 2017-11-01 14:32
gb 33 posts 1 likes joined Jul 10, 2015
Part 3

The chat with his chairman had gone almost exactly as Harper had intended. He’s been firm and forthright and when Paul had tried to make a defence of retaining the status quo Harper had rolled out a confident and assured argument; “You brought me here to manage, so let me fucking well manage.”

When he walked out of the office to lead that first training session Harper had received assurances that the board would back him. He could add one fitness and one goalkeeping coach to the slate, he could count on support to recruit two scouts and he’d be able to add an additional physio. All in all that would bring the first team coaching to five, including himself and his assistant, three first team scouts and two first team physios. That was another point of contention, the existing staff.

Harper was assured by Paul that they were all good lads, happy in their role and comfortable about Twerton Park. The counter point presented by Harper was that they might be good and happy but they’d also been part of the worst season in the club’s recent history. It was under their watch that the team had regressed, players had failed to achieve their goals and live up to their potential. His chairman had offered to terminate the contracts but Harper had said it was his call so he would swing the axe, it was the least he could do.

The next week was spent contacting people he’d met previously, those he was aware of peripherally and registering the vacancies directly with the relevant bodies in the hopes of attractive applicants.

He’d also convinced the chairman of the need for the club to become fully as opposed to semi professional – this was something they were looking at. Harper knew it wouldn’t happen overnight, it would be entirely dependant on him securing the much longed for promotion to the Conference. He filed that away to bring out of the drawer when the time came around again. His final victory in the meeting was a commitment to loosen the purse strings and let Harper go shopping for players.

That had been two weeks ago. In training the first team squad were struggling to come to terms with the dramatic change in team style and structure. A team used to playing a slow and sluggish 4-4-2 were now being asked to play a mobile and motile 4-3-3, which pivoted into a 2-3-5 when on the offensive. Some of the younger players were relishing the opportunity to learn new skills and develop their gameplan – buying into what their new manager and coaching set up were asking – some of the older ones however had their reservations. He’d identified a few weaknesses and strengths and aimed to tweak his eventual tactical plan to fit, depending on the make up of his eventual first team squad.

On the eve of the first pre-season game of the season, a tricky looking clash away to Forest Green Rovers at Nailsworth, the first of the new signings arrived. Harper had adopted a room next door to the home changing room as his office. It was small and a little grimy but it was right at the heart of the action. A gentle knock that Harper recognized as belonging to Maggie broke the silence as he read over, for the fourth time, the next opponent report provided by his newest scouting addition Andy Moore.

“Harper, have you a minute to meet with Kieran here?”

Harper stood up, his smile beaming he strode around the desk and firmly grabbed the hand of the young man in front of him. Kieran Sommerville would be the lynchpin in the new front three, the central pivot around which the others would revolve. At least that was the theory.

“How was the flight down? We’re not the biggest club down here but I promise you we’re going to be the most progressive, at least if I’ve anything to say on the matter.” Shepherding the youngster into his office and directing him to a comfy chair across from the desk Harper sat down.

The chatted casually at first, talking about Edinburgh and Livingston and the fates that had brought them both to the distant south. Kieran had grown up in and around football, at Hearts in Edinburgh and then he’d progressed to Livingston when it was clear that he’d be well down the pecking order in Midlothian. Leaving Hearts was a decision that Harper very much agreed with. He’d agreed, at the recommendations of his agent, to come south to Bath City, following a very talented young manager to a hungry team. Only 17 he was already tall enough to cause a problem at times and his finishing wasn’t bad although his all around game could use some work. All in all he was a decent signing and someone who fit perfectly into the mould that Harper was looking for; young, hungry and with potential to get better and better.

The deal wasn’t expensive but, having said that Bath couldn’t afford it to be. Eventually it could rise to £24k, something that the chairman had reluctantly agreed to – if it was to rise so high promotions would have been achieved and therefore the expense would be worth it.

After the chat and the catch up, Harper personally took Kieran on a tour of the facilities and stadium.

“It might not look much now but you won’t believe where we’ll be in a few years. Here you’ve chance to really make a name for yourself and maybe show everyone at Hearts exactly what they’re missing out on.”

Then Harper dropped the bomb he’d been hoping would get a reaction, Kieran Sommerville was starting up front for the first game of pre-season. The delivery and reaction did not disappoint.

The result however was less than ideal – Forest Green scored two in the first half, both in Harper’s mind caused by defensive mistakes. The first was a simple corner in the 18th minute, a lack of awareness on marking assignments left Dale Bennett open with the goal at his mercy. The second an optimistic long ball down the middle had Jack Batten of Bath jumping against Christian Doidge who flicked it on for Keanu Marsh-Brown to chase. Dan Ball missed a simple tackle and trap, Marsh-Brown found it only too easy to drill the ball in past the stranded keeper.

The second half got little better with Bath conceding a third shortly after the break. An incisive attack down the right flank and a high looping cross which the centre back pairing failed to deal with left a bouncing ball across the penalty spot. Marsh-Brown was only too happy to slot the ball home into the bottom left corner for 3 - 0.

Finally their moment came in the 72nd minute – Naby Diallo, playing as the right sided forward of the three latched onto a drilled ball forward. Collecting the daisy cutter he proceeded unopposed to the edge of the area before flicking a delicately weighted cross through to Kieran Sommerville. Sommerville rose like a gazelle, the ball connecting beautifully from his shock of red hair, Sam Russell dived and the net bulged; 3 - 1!

The full time whistle when it came was a relief in many ways. The first 90 minutes had ended in defeat but there were signs for optimism. Harper had already decided ahead of the game where his other core signings needed to be and the game had done nothing to change his mind. The following morning as he arrived at Twerton Park he picked up the phone and started the ball rolling on his second and third signings of the season. Getting these over the line would give Bath a real opportunity to do something a lot more meaningful.
He only had a few days until the next pre-season game, and the first outing at Twerton Park in front of a curious faithful. He had to move quickly and he knew it.
"There have only been two world class goalkeepers; one was Lev Yashin, the other was the German boy who played for Manchester City."
Po Red5's avatar Group Po Red5 2017-11-06 16:31
gb 33 posts 1 likes joined Jul 10, 2015
Part 4
The second signing of the season came without a huge amount of fanfare. Valentin Gjokaj, previously of Derby (with six Championship appearances under his belt), Carlisle and Barnet fame had failed to make the breakthrough on a few occasions. At one point big things were expected of the Albanian under 21 but his career, it was fair to say, had not blossomed as he’d expected.

A rugged centre back was what was often needed in lower league football and the Swiss Albanian was just what Bath needed. Tall and powerful with a mean streak and a chip on his shoulder gave Harper a lot to be pleased about when the contract was signed. The lack of a transfer fee was also something which had certainly helped to remove any lingering doubts or complications.

Another junior international would arrive at Twerton Park on loan shortly thereafter, following Gjokaj west along the M4. The managerial roundabout at Charlton had seen three managers in the last twelve months with a fourth one newly warming the seat at The Valley now that Russell Slade had accepted the job. He had a lot of yesterday’s men in the squad, players signed by a prior regime who perhaps were not in his first team plans. There were others who were always intended to be youth prospects, development projects who needed competitive game time; it was to these that Harper Tanner had cast an eye.

His intended formation required a competent, combative midfielder – someone willing to devote himself to the less beautiful side of the game, someone with an axe to grind. El Hadji Ba started his career at Le Harve then Sunderland, spent time with Bastia (and their reserves) on loan before finally landing at Charlton while under the stewardship of Guy Luzon. Karel Fraeye and Jose Riga both felt him to be somewhat surplus to requirements during their stint in charge and it hadn’t taken much for Harper and the board to convince Slade that the game time so desperately needed could be had at Bath City. El Hadji Ba wasn’t thrilled at his new home but he knew he was there to do a job, to secure a future for himself; to justify his place in the Charlton squad. He’d work hard and hoped to be rewarded down at The Valley next year.

Harper was beginning to feel slightly happier. He’d added a second scout bringing the total to three for the season, albeit all part time. He’s secured the services of a goalkeeping coach and a fitness coach, again part time. Finally he’d sourced the man he wanted to play the role of assistant but had yet to secure a signature. The wait was almost unbearable. In the meantime however he’d appointed a new Head of Youth Development, a fiery Scot by the name of Damian Cross along with a new Head Physio, Clare Messing. In his heart of hearts Harper knew that these appointments likely wouldn’t last if the board agreed to go full time on contracts alongside the full professional status. He’d been open and honest with each of them – their contracts would be honoured but it was up to them to ensure that come renewal time they’d demonstrated that they had what it took to drive the club forward.

He still needed an Under 23s Manager along with a coach for them, someone to watch over the Under 18s and that was in addition to his assistant. He’d already spent time with the youth squads. He was firmly of the opinion that the manager should be a visible part of the entire set up, present at all training sessions wherever possible, irrespective of who was leading the training. The idea that the tactics of the first team would be mirrored throughout all levels was key and, he felt, by being present the players at every level felt included. He didn’t butt in, nor did he overrule any coach while on the training pitch. He did however make a few suggestions with his office door closed and more than once accepted the invitation to assist with training of the younger players. One of them in particular had caught his eye and he’d scheduled a meeting with him for the start of the next week.

The second preseason game came along all too quickly. They were at home to Cirencester, again only an hour or so away. This would be the first outing in front of the home fans and the team were understandably a little nervous.

In goal the Bristol City loanee Max O’Leary wore the number 1 jersey. He was young and eager, already having agreed to join before Harper had signed his contract. He’d only made his debut the year before and with opportunities as Ashton Gate limited he was keen to move down the leagues for game time and experience; at the current moment he was the obvious choice between the sticks.

The back four of Bath would see Gjokaj make his first appearance in a centreback pairing along with Jack Batten. At right back George Rigg retained his place and on the left again was Dan Ball; Harper was confident that would not be how they’d line up on the first day of the season however.

El Hadji Ba would sit in the hole in front of the defence, a first chance to show the skills and aggression that he was intended to bring to the fore.

The central two in midfield were comprised of Frankie Artus and Billy Murphy; neither gave Harper tingles of excitement but both were serviceable enough for now.

The front three was comprised of Kieran Sommerville in the centre, with Naby Diallo on the right and Nick McCootie shoehorned in on the left. This wasn’t an ideal solution however needs must. The beauty of preseason was in offering the potential to play around with formations and play around with squad roles so while not ideal it may give some valuable information. Nick was good in the air, powerful and strong – a natural number 9 – Kieran was cut of a similar cloth while Naby was quicker and more technical. The three together would pose interesting problems and Harper was excited when the knock came on his door to tell him it was time.

He pushed open the changing room door, the smell of the citrus cleaner mingled with the various aftershaves and deodorants in use. The fluorescent lighting bounced of the white tiles in a rather disorientating way as he made his way between the wood and metal benches and locker bank to stand at the front of the room. It was very similar to a few changing rooms in the lower leagues in Scotland he’d played in. It was similar to a couple of them from lower leagues in England he’d visited on preseason tours and a couple in Ireland too. The thing it most reminded him of though was the old school gym changing rooms from his time at high school.

Looking down at the faces arranged in front of him he suddenly felt very much like a teacher addressing his class. He rose to his full height, cleared his throat and began.

“Right lads, Cirencester.” He left the words hanging for a moment. “Teams like these will be coming here all season. Teams like these will see you and think about last year and think they can have their way. Well I say fuck ‘em! Tonight you get to show everyone here that Bath City are no push overs! Tonight you get to show all the faithful here that they were right to spend their hard earned walking through the turnstyles! Tonight you have the opportunity to get out there and lay down a marker, draw a line in the sand and show them that Twerton Park should be somewhere they fear coming!”

The faces were engaged, some nodded and some murmured under their breath. Harper had always enjoyed this aspect of the role, it was something he always loved to do as a captain, or more often vice captain. He could see them buying into it, he could see that he was reaching them and that was half the battle.

“Tonight I want to see crisp passing – faces forward, passes forward; you play a momentum breaking backpass and you’d better have a damn good reason. Play through the middle when you can, balls through to EHB, Arf and Murphy, balls through to the fullbacks when you can’t – you guys have the ability to change the game and I want you to show it! You boys in the centre need to support the attacks – give an option and make things awkward for Cirencester. Last word for the three of you,” he turned to Sommerville, Diallo and McCootie. “I have faith in you, last week you showed that you can score against far better opposition than Cirencester! You will get opportunities today and you will get sight on goal. I don’t need you to lash every shot you see but I want you to make their keeper work for his money. Well, what are you waiting for? Let’s get at them!”

The crowd wasn’t large, it never was at Twerton Park – but they gave the Team Bath players a rousing reception. Each name called out on the PA was met with a cheer, the new signings more so than the established veterans Harper noted.

Straight from the kick off Bath were on the offensive. A clean ball picked out the right fullback racing forward unopposed. He collected the pass and lifted a diagonal cross deep into the Cirencester box, their keeper rose well and snagged it out of the air under challenge from Sommerville. The rest of the half played out in similar grounds, Bath would attack – primarily from wide fullback crosses and the keeper or defenders would deal with it. A time or two the ball broke for Diallo or McCootie to chase and there was more than one occasion where the break was three on three or two on three but always the final ball was lacking.

The half time whistle brought a halt to proceedings with the score still firmly 0 - 0. Despite the better possession, despite the better attacks and more fluid play Bath hadn’t broken the deadlock. Harper’s halftime talk was simple, “More of the same please” and his players didn’t disappoint.

On the 64th minute Bath won a corner. A hopeful ball forward from EHB chased down by Diallo left him one on one with the keeper. His shot was weak and it was easily parried around the post. The corner itself curled inwards beautifully, Gjokaj rose majestically at the near post, flicking it on and into the six yard box. Unopposed at the back post was Jack Batten with the goal at his mercy… and he put it wide. The crowd vented their frustration; some of the invectives thrown at Batten were needless, some were however a fair approximation of the gilt edge chance he’d just missed.

Blushes were thankfully spared just over ten minutes later when Diallo broke on the right, Murphy found him with a well weighted through ball and he in turn found Sommerville unmarked twelve yards out. The keeper lunged but was beaten, Sommerville struck for the second game in a row.

In the 82nd minute Bath again found themselves through, Naby Diallo once more the creative force cut in from wide right to the edge of the box. Lashing a left foot shot with dip and curl around the last defender and the outstretched arms of the keeper he made it 2 – 0. The game continued on in similar vein for the last few minutes before the referee brought the contest to an end. Bath ran out deserving winners.

In the dressing room after the match Harper paid credit to Sommerville for breaking the deadlock but singled out Naby Diallo as his man of the moment. The forward with one assist and one goal was rewarded with a mention in the Non-League Paper as one to watch in the coming year. Harper excused himself and found his opposite number is short order. The two shared a beer in Harper’s office and wished each other well for the season to come before Cirencester’s boss, Charlie Griffin, made his excuses.

The seeds were beginning to be sown at Bath – Harper could feel the change on the horizon. He still needed a couple more transfers and a couple more tweaks to the squad before the season started for real. In his office next to the dressing room he brought up the contacts list on his phone and pressed dial. The phone buzzed a metallic noise in his ear as he waited for it to be answered.

“Hello?”

“Hi, this is Harper Tanner. Is that Chris?”
"There have only been two world class goalkeepers; one was Lev Yashin, the other was the German boy who played for Manchester City."
Po Red5's avatar Group Po Red5 2017-11-10 16:15
gb 33 posts 1 likes joined Jul 10, 2015
Part 5

The next few weeks passed something of a blur. Bath played another three games in that stretch, against Cribbs FC at Twerton Park, away to Hereford FC at Edgar Street and a difficult road game at Chippenham Town. The signings continued at pace for Harper as did his internal appointments. There was however something else which had put a smile of his face, Lauri had joined him in Bath.

They’d moved into a rental house on the outskirts of the city, in a nice quiet suburb. She wasn’t the typical wag, but Harper hadn’t been the typical player. She was short, about 5’4 with pale skin and dark eyes. Her left nostril was pierced and her hair was partially shaved over the left ear, the rest jet black and choppy with a streak of electric pink and neon blue to complement. Her arms, neck and chest were tattooed and she even had a couple of stars tattooed onto her scalp above her left ear, peeking through the shaven hair.

Next to the bronzed, often blonde stereotypical wag she cut a dramatic and alternative figure. Harper had met her in a tattoo parlour in Edinburgh perhaps ten years ago when Harper was getting a piece on his ribs. Lauri was working the desk and booking the diary and they’d had an instant connection. It hadn’t taken her long to work herself into the artist’s chair and soon enough she was putting ink on Harper herself between games. They dated for almost two years and then tied the knot, adding a large brown Dogue De Bordeaux named Fitz to complete the family.

She’d waited until Harper was sure he wasn’t coming back before moving down for the final time. The house up in Edinburgh would be rented out and the removals firm would transfer their belongings down over the next few days.
Having her and Fitz with him made Harper a lot more settled, seeing her opening boxes and unpacking nicknacks in their new home while Fitz snored made it all feel real, not just some wild adventure or holiday from reality – he was really doing it, he was really making progress.

She’d made something of a splash at Twerton Park too, coming down to training to see Harper and the lads that first morning – once or twice shouting from the sidelines, a little cheerleader until Harper politely asked her to stop distracting him and the team while training was in session. He got a bit of stick from a few of the players, it helped humanise him a little – he wasn’t merely a manager, he was one of the boys and was a part of the character of the place. The buy-in from the players improved immensely in the following days and weeks. He even took to taking Fitz with him from time to time, letting the big brown beast sleep under his desk while he completed the more mundane and less glamorous jobs associated with managing a non-league club.

Lauri for her part had also started helping out with the admin, arranging some of the community outreach and helping in a voluntary capacity to spread the word. Maggie loved her; the two were very different but together proved a somewhat formidable team. Lauri was friendly and engaging, confident and, at times, rather pointed in her delivery. She called a spade a spade and didn’t pussyfoot around which was refreshing. It made Harper happy to see her finding her feet and feeling out a niche, it was nice having her around the ground and training facilities now and then but she didn’t intend on that being a permanent thing; she’d always been fiercely independent and wasn’t about to let moving to the south change that.

Gently she’d started to put the feelers out to a few studios in and around Bath as to whether any chairs were free or might be coming up in the coming months. Her fingers were beginning to twitch and there were only so many drawing pads she could fill before she would need to do something about it.

The telephone call following the win over Chippenham had also been productive for Harper. They spoke for five or ten minutes and then arranged to meet to discuss things face to face, informally at first but with a view to seeing what happened next. Harper had driven up to Birmingham for the meeting, arriving at the hotel in the centre a little early. He’d found Chris already waiting for him with a cup of coffee and a copy of the paper.

Chris Iwelumo had enjoyed a career far in advance of anything Harper had achieved. He’d played the majority of his career in the Championship, had earned a handful of international caps and even started a game against a celebrated Argentina side at Hamden Park. He’d dabbled in management and coaching, looking after the U-18s at Wolverhampton, albeit it very briefly, while also coaching at Chester, his last club as a player.

Chris had met Harper through the coaching courses and several other events. They were both intelligent and thoughtful characters, Chris having recently finished studies at Staffordshire Uni, and the two shared a passion for youth development. Over a couple of coffees and a light lunch the two pencilled out what Harper was looking for, what Bath could offer and where Chris wanted to get to long term and how they fit in with one another. At the end of the informal chat they’d made arrangements for Chris to come down to Bath the following day to meet with Paul Williams and discuss the vacant Assistant Manager’s post. By the end of the week Harper had secured the assistant he’d been looking for – someone who bought into the project and had a wealth of experience to call upon which Harper was perhaps lacking in.
On a twelve month deal Chris signed the first and only full time contract for staff other than Harper’s own. To say the board were pleased was an understatement. The Non-League Paper’s opinion was clear from their coverage, All Change at Twerton Park – New Backroom Team Promises Big Things.

On the back of Chris Iwelumo joining the coaching team Team Bath had also added to the squad. Dennis Adeniran, a skilful seventeen year old midfielder had joined on loan from Fulham and Alex Iacovitti, a talented and old school centre half of eighteen had come on loan from Nottingham Forest. The additions were improving the squad from front to back; bringing in players that had played at a higher level or had experienced a better standard could only help matters.

The new signings slotted straight into the team for the three friendlies. Cribbs FC were overturned 3-0, with goals from Diallo, Gjokaj and Sommerville for his third in three. Hereford FC were beaten on the road 1-2, pleasingly Harper’s Bath came back from a goal down through goals from Adeniran and McCootie. Only the final game of the three gave Harper pause; against a Chippenham Town side sitting a division below Bath FC the team struggled to a 1-1 draw. Sommerville found the net again but McCootie looked ill at ease in a wider role. Profligate in front of goal and failing to drop back to link play he was very much the weak link, combined with a somewhat misfiring fullback the left flank was a disaster for Bath FC. Chippenham Town pressed their advantage, exposing McCootie and Ball at every opportunity. Good play from Iacovitti, O’Leary and Gjokaj kept them honest but if anything the 1-1 scoreline flattered Bath City; they'd been woeful.

Only a couple of weeks to go until the start of the season proper and there were still issues in the squad both tactically and with personnel. Time was running out for Harper Tanner. The forward line still needed work, the defence could do with some competition and between the sticks he was uncomfortable without a serviceable backup on the books.

He’d been toying for a week or two with blooding some of the younger players fresh from the youth team. To finalise his thinking Harper arranged an inter-squad friendly between the first team squad and a team made up of the U-23s and U-18s. Harper would manage the first group while the second would be lead by Chris.

They scheduled the match for ten days before the start of the season proper, with one additional friendly to be played between the two dates.

Harper had only one instruction to Chris in the run up to the game, “Come at us and come at us hard; the lads need to be tested and I need to see who’ll break.” Chris did not fail to honour the instruction.
"There have only been two world class goalkeepers; one was Lev Yashin, the other was the German boy who played for Manchester City."
Po Red5's avatar Group Po Red5 2017-11-14 16:04
gb 33 posts 1 likes joined Jul 10, 2015
Part 6

The rain was cold and hard. Even under the shelter on the bench Harper was pelted with cold, sharp raindrops. Wrapped up in a large coat he found himself wondering if it was indeed July or not, the one thing you could always count on the British weather for was that you couldn’t count on it.

His team had remained mostly unchanged for the friendly. O’Leary started in goal with the back four of Rigg, Ball, Gjokaj and Iacovitti behind a midfield trio of Ba, Ideniran and Murphey with McCootie, Diallo and Sommerville as the point of the spear. Chris had called up a hodge podge of players from both the U-23s and U-18s with a few in particular that Harper had his eye on. Both squads would start out with the same formation, the Team Bath way in full force from the get go.

Behind the dugouts a number of the board members had made an appearance, with Paul Williams pint in hand wrapped in a black and white Bath City scarf making his presence loudly known. Nearby sat most of the players families with Lauri sporting a black hoodie and jeans – unlike most of the others she remained standing for most of the 90 minutes cheering and shouting. The stadium offered free entry to fans for the open door training match but less than a hundred or so had come through the turnstyles. Harper wasn’t sure if it was the weather, the lack of an opposing team or the fact it was a Thursday evening but either way the fans had not made the trip to Twerton Park. If Bath were going to achieve what he wanted to achieve they needed to engage with the fans, and soon.

The game kicked off quite sedately with the nominal home side, the main squad, stroking the ball around without a great deal or urgency or desire. This gentle pass around lasted all of three minutes however. Treating the game very much as an extended training session Nick McCootie wasn’t expecting the challenge to come in as hard or as readily as it did when the youngster Chris Coade slid in very hard on him from the left, winning the ball and landing the big forward on his backside. The ball knocked on from the challenge ran to the feet of Murphey who was also met with a vicious and lively tackle from Coade again, who’d popped to his feet with a point to prove. Harper shot a glance to Iwelumo who struggled to hide the smile on his face. Game on.

Within a few minutes Diallo shouted over to Harper, he wasn’t enjoying the exuberance of the tackles and anyway wasn’t this just a training game? Harper gave it him back in no uncertain terms that this was pre-season and if he thought the kids hit hard wait until the real crunch point of the season. By half time and with the score at 0 – 0 Harper had reason to be both happy and irritated – happy at the performance of a couple of the younger lads particularly Coade for the reserves and Ideniran for the main team and irritated at the performance and attitude of a couple of the older players, in particular Diallo and McCootie. In no uncertain terms he made it abundantly clear that if the U-23s or U-18s outperform you then questions would be asked as to who deserved to be in the first XI, and who should be on the bench or in the reserves. The point came across to all but a few.

Up in the stands Lauri started in on a hot coffee, strong, milky and with a couple of sugars from the burger van behind the stand. She always got a look from Harper because, as he put it, if it was any sweeter she might as well drink syrup.

Maggie beside her quietly slipped a nip from a hip flask into her coffee and offered it to Lauri, “Something to warm you up love?”

Lauri popped the lid off her paper cup and nodded. The dark rum gave the coffee warmth and a depth of flavour which made her think of Christmas and winter. It was a little incongruous on a July evening but nevertheless it was pleasant enough in the wind and the rain of the evening.

The two had chatted earlier in the week about this and that, Lauri touching on her urge to start tattooing again and the job at the studio she’d left behind in Edinburgh. She’d even promised to show Maggie a few of her sketch pads and doodled ideas when they found the time. They’d met for lunch and a glass of wine the day before the game and had tossed around a few ideas about how to make best use of the skills at the club’s disposal as far as community engagement and the like was concerned. It hadn’t taken long for them to strike up a friendship and they’d arranged to meet up at weekend and take the Fitz and Maggie’s dog Charlie for a walk together along the Cotswolds Way.

By the time the players came out for the second half the rum had nicely warmed Lauri’s cheeks and the wind had started to die down, the rain for its part was still as insistent as ever.

The team lead by Chris had a point to prove and it showed; they were however now facing a team that had been given a rodding. Most of the lads had realised this wasn’t just any old training game; there was a need to perform and to play. Finally the team began to perform as they needed with Diallo and Sommerville both launching stinging shots at goal. Between the sticks for the second team Cory Harvey proved a capable shot stopper but the pressure was beginning to tell. Soon enough Harvey’s goal was starting to look under siege.

On the 53rd minute Ideniran pounced. Sommerville’s shot palmed out by Harvey rebounded between the defenders and forwards. Ideniran advanced onto the ball and from twenty yards out drilled it hard and clean first time into the top right corner with Harvey still scrambling to get back into position. A second came in short order through Gjokaj from a freekick taken by Ideniran, rising high to meet the ball with a powerful header past the helpless keeper. Both teams rang the changes between the 60th and 75th minutes, this disrupted the momentum slightly but the difference in class still shone through overall.

Despite a few stellar performances from the reserve squad a third goal came in the 81st minute from Frankie Artus following a game of pinball in the box. Harper applauded both teams as the final whistle went, personally going across to several of the youngsters as they left the field. Following the game Harper and Chris met up with the rest of the coaching staff for a debrief. He wanted to gauge all opinions before he moved on with what he was planning, after the conversations which were frank and honest Harper stated that he’d make his decision over the weekend. There was one more person he needed to get the opinion of.

Over breakfast the next morning Harper walked Lauri through his thoughts. She’d gone with Maggie for a glass or two after the game and had woken up feeling slightly muggy. She assured Harper she wasn’t hung over she was just a bit tired but in truth her head was a more than a little fuzzy. She’d made it downstairs and forced an almond croissant down and made a show of having a coffee, ultimately though it went cold before she could face it. While she sat at the glass kitchen table in the long black vest top she’d slept in he’d got dressed and sorted himself out in jeans and an AC/DC tshirt.

Cory Harvey was a good keeper, great promise and potentially one for the future, right now though he just wasn’t up to the level of O’Leary. Harper would move him to the first team squad to serve as cover for O’Leary while playing for the U-23s if the games didn’t clash. Chris Coade would be moved up from the U-18s into the U-23s with a view to use him as cover if needed by the first team squad. He had a lot of hope in Chris Coade and Harvey.

Bouncing the ideas off Lauri always seemed to help. She had a knack for knowing when he needed a counter argument, when he needed affirmation and when he really did need to iron out his thinking. On this matter he’d already made his mind up and just needed to know whether he was right in making the changes. She listened, asked a few leading questions and between them he came to the decision he’d already made. When she stood up to clear the breakfast plates he was happy in his own mind. Feeling slightly pleased with herself she put another pot of coffee on and then toddled upstairs to grab a shower, leaving little bare footed footprints down the laminate wood floor.

After breakfast Harper took Fitz for a quick run while Lauri checked her emails in a towel and chased a few studios. She’d planned a route through the city to stop in and get a little face time with a few of the studios and artists, she was also going to drop in to a couple of galleries and the like, places that tickled her fancy so to speak. She intended to tick off something that herself and Maggie had touched on and poke her nose into some of the festival spaces and community hubs, she had a little plan forming and wanted to feel out the edges of it before she made any more concrete enquiries.

By the time Harper had arrived at Twerton Park he was feeling a little hungry. He stopped in the café and they agreed to bring him a bit of something through to his office along with a hot coffee, black with no sugar. As he was about to leave Chris Iwelumo came inside in the other direction, rather than head straight back to the office he stopped for a quick few minutes with Chris. Chris placed his order and then the two sat down at the table in the window, looking out over the carpark.

The staff for the Co-Op and post office were just arriving, parking on the far side of the open space. They watched as the cars were parked and the staff made their way inside. Harper and Chris exchanged a little small talk, touched on the debriefing from the night before and then Chris addressed the elephant in the room.

“Coots just isn’t getting it, he doesn’t want to play wide and he doesn’t think the tactics will work against the bigger clubs. I think to be honest he just doesn’t want to be here anymore.”

Harper knew the rumblings of discontent from the striker were beginning to leak out. He’d had a word with Nick McCootie himself about his attitude and the need to put in a shift at times, he wasn’t naturally a quick and technical forward and being shoehorned into a versatile role something more akin to a false nine just wasn’t in his DNA.

“I think we need to look at bringing in another forward, if only for competition. Naby seems to have picked it up pretty well but Coots just isn’t cutting it. You saw it yourself last night, little Chrissy Coade schooled him at times – and he’s just a kid!”

“It’s not that easy though Chris, totally agree we need bodies and a forward wouldn’t hurt but right now its finances. I had to really push my point to get the guys in I have and, without being too much of a dick about it, in order to bring you in too. There isn’t a lot left in the pot. If we want to hold something back in reserve for the January window we can’t spend it all now, we just can’t. Listen, do what you can to have a word with Coots, coming from you it might give him the kick he needs. If I do it myself he might feel like he’s being picked on. Have a quiet word, casually, let him know that he needs to start, you know, actually proving he deserves the salary he’s on. If that doesn’t work then we’ll see about doing something else. I’ll have a word with Paul though; let him know I need a bit more from his pocket.”

Once he was back in his office Harper started in on the next part of his plans. He let Maggie know that he needed a word with Paul Williams when he was back on site. He was spending the day golfing with a couple of the other board members along with a couple from the clubs over Bristol way. Harper had never understood the fascination with golf but as so many of the people involved in the game loved it he’d had to on occasion spend time on the courses. Typically he’d shank a few balls into the rough and then retire for a few drinks. Golf was one sport that Harper had no interest in what so ever.
He did however have a note on his desk which Maggie had left for him. By the time the breakfast and coffee arrived – a full English with an extra fried tomato and a side of toast – Harper was already on the telephone following up on it. The call didn’t last long and his breakfast was still hot when he rung off. He stabbed a sausage and took a bite while he made a note in his calendar on the computer.

Monday 25th July – Meeting with Ava Foster, Non-League Paper

Finishing up his breakfast Harper sent a message to his scouting team, Find me a forward – pacey, good technician, f9 if you can, asap. He then sent another message direct to the chief scout, Review of best players available on current budget across all positions – your recommendations, cheers.

He picked up his keys and wallet, switched off the lights. The youth team were about to start a session under Chris Iwelumo and he wanted to deliver the news to Coade and Harvey in person. As he pushed open the door and stepped outside into the blustery day Harper had no idea what the next week would bring. On the 6th August he’d lead the team out for their first game of the season but before that there was one final pre-season game to go.

And what a game it would be.
"There have only been two world class goalkeepers; one was Lev Yashin, the other was the German boy who played for Manchester City."

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