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"The Prodigal Daughter Returns"

Started on 18 May 2019 by rien102 / First Post
Latest Reply on 17 June 2019 by ScottT / Last Post
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Welcome to my first story, here, on FMScout. Before diving into the story itself, I want to give you a little idea of what to expect and also, explain a bit of my writing process.

First, this is a story; this is not a career update. This means it is written with a specific arch that has a beginning, a middle and an end point. The save itself dictates the pace of the story and it can also influence some aspect of it, but no more.

Two, I want to talk to you a little about my writing process. I do not write after playing a season or an entire save; I write as I play. So, for example, let’s say I talk about game preparation for a particular match, and then, in the same post, I talk about what happened in that game. This means that I wrote the pre-game preparation first. Then, I played the match itself. Finally, I wrote about the match and the result, adding some little snippets here and there for storytelling purposes. Since I write about the character that is in my save and that in real life, the character would not know in advance what would happen to him, I write without knowing it either.
Three, as I previously said, this is a story and not a career update so; there will be very few screenshots except some league tables here and there, or some elements to illustrate things when it will be needed. This also means that it could be a good read during commute since there won’t be screenshots who would be crucial to the understanding of the story…

Fourth, the posts will usually be rather small (except for this one). I will often do time skips, like a youtuber who puts a limited amount of vids for an entire season. It will be the same thing, just in written form.

Finally, I really need to say this: what I achieved with that particular manager, I have never, ever, did something similar in any other saves before! I don’t know why… It’s just is… Maybe I got touched by an angel that told me: “Only for this one mate!” Who knows? But I wanted to let it out there…

I hope you enjoy reading my story.
Ben

I also have a personal blog where my stories will be posted; including some that will be exclusive to the blog (already two are in preparation). You can follow my work here: http://thefictionchronicler.home.blog. You can also follow my Twitter handle https://twitter.com/_TheChronicler. From my main blog, you can follow me via email or with a RSS feed.



“The Prodigal Daughter Returns
By Brian Wifferdill
Emirates Stadium, London, Tuesday 4 May, 2038

By appointing Penny Stiles as their manager, the Direction of Arsenal boasted today that they’ve just «…made a true big catch!». The 54 years old woman, the first one to manage in top leagues, has deep roots with the club, having played with the Arsenal Ladies. The news of the arrival even prompted a former coach of the Ladies to declare: «If Vic Akers was still alive today, he’d surely say that it is nothing less than the prodigal daughter returns!»

Penny Stiles was a goalkeeper and she got her chance with the Arsenal Ladies Football Club at the age of 15. Precocious and tall for her age, she already was a very driven individual. She made her debut at the end of her 1st season and before the end of her 3rd season with the Ladies, she was designated the number one goalkeeper; she was 17. She rapidly caught the attention of the Women English National Team who brought her in for a friendly against Cameroun, which ended with a 4-0 score.

Shortly after her 18th birthday, coming back from the gym, her car was harpooned, on the driver’s side, by another one running a red light. The impact was violent. She was brought to the hospital with multiple injuries and very severe internal bleeding. The main injuries were located on her right side. The right leg was broken in several places and her right ankle was crushed. Once an artificial ankle one was finally in place, she was able to walk again, but with a crutch. Her career as a player was over.

She would disappear from football for some years before reappearing as a tactical coach for an amateur Division 12 team in London. She subsequently was named manager of the team and seven years later, was offered the manager job of an amateur Division 9 team from Herefordshire County. This is where she was noticed by the President of the Board of Hereford FC.

A Phoenix club formed in 2014, Hereford FC got two rapid promotions and arrived in Division 7, landing in Conference South. After their first campaign, where the club spent almost the entire campaign in the relegation zone, the manager was fired. Then President of the Board, David Boggins brought Stiles into the club’s midst.

Her first season with the Bulls, now transferred in Conference North, was everything the club and the fans could have wanted. The club won the title while getting two good runs in Cups. She was named Manager of the Year. The year after, Stiles was again able to get another stellar season, grabbing a second title in two years on the very last game of the season against Ebbsfleet who was in the top spot on goal difference. In Cups, she managed to bring the Bulls to Wembley in the FA Trophy competition, where she lost 1-2 against Salford, while getting another good run in FA Cup. She received the Manager of Year award a second time.
That second season was difficult on a personal level; her daughter being diagnosed with Leukemia. Stiles decided to quit Hereford at the end of the season to accept a Tactical coach job with West Bromwich Albion, with the caveat that she would only have to work during regular office hours, so that she could tend to her daughter for the rest of her treatments and her recovery. She would stay with the Baggies for 3 years and travelled between Premiere League and Championship after each season.

On March 24th, 2024, Aston Villa was 6 points into relegation zone and fired their manager, Peter Bosz. Looking more and more toward the side lines, she decided to apply for the job, without great expectations. The 12th of April, the club announced her nomination and made her the first woman ever to be the manager of a top league team. When asked if her appointment constituted big a risk, Tony Xia, the owner, answered: «The risk is to not win enough games, but we already are doing that! We’ve been doing it since the beginning of the season!” She would only have 6 games to keep the team in Premiere League.

Her first match would be the very next day, at Villa Park, ironically, against none other than Arsenal. Despite the expulsion of her left winger barely 4 minutes into the match, she managed to get a 1-1 draw against the Gunners, who were 7th on the table. She would get her first Premiere League win the very next week against Middlesbrough, at Riverside Stadium. She finished the campaign in 16th place.

Stiles would stay with Aston Villa for 11 full seasons and was able to bring the club back to summits that the fans were hoping for over 25 years. With the claret and blue, she was able to win 4 Premiere League titles, 3 FA Cups, 1 Europa League and to reach the Champion’s League final three times, winning the coveted trophy twice. To her now impressive silverware cabinet, she also added four Manager of the Year awards.

She would leave the Villans in 2035, to take the helm of the English National team following miserable results on the international scene; the Three Lions even failing to qualify for the 2034 World Cup. She had made clear, right from the start, that she was coming in with only one goal in mind: the 2038 World Cup that would be played in the United States. Taking the reign of a completely demoralized squad, she installed her stance very early on, working on morale before anything else. In the 2036 Nation’s League, she was able to bring the trophy to England with surprise wins of 1-0 against Germany, Italy and finally Spain in the finals. The 2038 World Cup was not as good but was more than respectable. The Three Lions flew over everyone in their group. In the semi-final, they would lose 0-1 to Italy on a penalty given at the 95th minute for a tackle that, despite VAR, is still hotly debated today.

Her arrival as manager with the Gunners is a clear break with the way managers ran the team. She is someone who is known to be a harsh disciplinarian. Despite her rigid stance on discipline, she still is a manager that is beloved by her players. Never shy of giving it straight to any one, she is known for working very hard to keep morale as high as possible, without sugar coating anything she think is not up to the standards she have set for the team.
On the pitch, she tends to prefer physical players and she prefers players with very high work rate above everything else. This physicality of the players is directly used onto the pitch, favouring a very physical type of play, where constant harassment of the opponent is a key feature.

She also tends to include young players from the club’s academy in her main squad very early. In the last 6 years with Villa, the average age of her squad never was higher than 24. In the same period, no less than 14 players coming from the academy got at least 10 starts with the main squads outside of the League Cup and lower rounds of the FA Cup. This trend is combined with high club pride, which she works hard to develop and nourish. A great example of this happened in 2029, when the Villans’ U18 squad reached the Junior Champion’s League Semi-Finals for the very first time in its history. She decided to bring the entire club to Switzerland, as spectators, for the game. Inspired by their presence, the U18 squad was able to secure their presence into the Final by defeating the Real Madrid U19 squad by a 1-0 score. Two weeks later, when the U18 squad was back in Switzerland for the Final against Bayern’s U19, she was at Wembley, playing the FA Cup Final for the club’s first time in 13 years. Stiles arranged things so that both teams would arrive at Bodymoor Heath at approximately the same time after the games. While the U18 squad was able to get the first ever Junior Champions League trophy for the club, the main squad simultaneously won their 1st FA Cup since 1957; it was the 1st of her reign. She made sure that all the squads of the club would celebrate together. Diego Pearce, a player who arrived in the U18 squad from the Academy that year, and who would become her first player emanating from the Academy to be part of the main XI of the club, and who is now with Arsenal, recalled the event in an interview in 2032,: «… just to see all those players in the stands cheering for us in the Semi-Finals was something else… but to celebrate, all together, for those two trophies, put a stamp on all her talk about everyone wearing the claret and blue shirt being on equal footing, whatever the squad they were playing in…»

For the Villa fans, she is affectionately known as “The Statued Queen”. If she physically never was a very expressive manager on the side lines, her general demeanour on the pitch dramatically changed for the 2025/26 campaign. During the 33nd game of the previous season, Aston Villa was playing the Citizens. The Villans being in 5th place on the table at the time, 2 points behind Tottenham and City, who were in 3rd and 4th place respectively. Her left back had to be pulled out of the game with a twisted knee after a double tackle from Citizens’ players only 10 minutes in. Before the end of the first half, her main central defender had to get out the pitch after being pushed head first into the woodwork on a defensive corner; he needed 10 stitches just to stop the bleeding and had to be subbed. Then, one of her midfielders was escorted out of the pitch with a concussion after a collision with two City’s players on the 50th minute. But at the 82nd minute’s mark, when her main striker was injured by a hard tackle, she became apoplectic! It was the fourth injury due to hard play, the 31st fouls of the game for the Citizens, and all without getting a single yellow card. Going on the pitch, she started screaming at the main referee, making graphic gesture and simulating sexual acts while insulting him. Despite her Assistant Manager, three of the Villans’ coaches and some players on the bench trying to hold her back, she just wouldn’t be stopped: «… what the f*** is that? Italy’s 2000’s?», making a direct insinuation to the fixed matches scandal that shook Italy’s Serie A, in 2005. She was expelled from the match, got a 5 games suspension and a hefty 150 000 pounds fine from FA. The club put her on probation for an entire year but refused to fine her. If she apologized for the graphic gestures she made, to this day, she always has refused to do the same about what she said. Since then, she would stay completely still in her technical area, hence the nickname, «The Statued Queen» given to her by the Villa fans.

Her Tactical openness and versatility is considered to be a big reason of some of her successes. Coming to Hereford and Aston Villa as managers, she put out systems based on a low block, where the midfielders would press hard against the attackers, low in her half to get the ball back, before launching lightning quick counter-attacks focused either on a fast series of short passes or with balls over the top of the opponent’s defence. With Hereford, she mainly used a 4-4-2 Diamond that would push the opponents to the flanks, counting on her defenders to intercept the crosses. With Aston Villa, she used either a 4-2-3-1 Wide or a 4-2-3-1 Deep, with 2 defensive midfielders. Both systems were defence centric, with strong harassment in midfield and counter-attacking whenever the chance was offered. With this last set-up, she was able to achieve her first Premiere League title, in 2028, while being called for nothing more than a 13th position on the table. The age of her main wingers, and the arrival of Diego Pearce in March 2028, would demonstrate that she was more than willing to adapt her system to her players instead of breaking the players into a specific system.

The 2028/29 campaign saw her departure from her staple low block, defensive approach, and deployed an offensive 3-5-2 system, based on patience and movement. While on the defensive phase, it was running much like a 4-4-2, where one wingback would drop with the central defenders while the other would press on the opponent with the ball. The defensive line would be high, to compress the opponents midfield and also, to give a chance to her forwards to harass them from behind, block passing lanes or press directly on the midfielders with the ball. On the other hand, when on attack, the system would become a 3-3-4, where both wingbacks would go very high up the pitch, to support the forwards from the flanks. The play would slowly be built from the back, through the middle, before shifting the ball to the flanks when the midfield line was crossed. Encouraging her players to recycle the ball whenever they thought necessary, the forwards would spend their time probing the defensive line of the opponents; their speed and work rate making them extremely mobile and hard to mark. Using the staple that the «key is not to move the ball but the opponents», the team would often switch the ball from flank to flank in the final third, especially against team playing narrow defensively, creating space and opportunities. The first season she used the system, despite still being tagged as nothing more than a mid-table team, Aston Villa finished in 4th place, getting a Champions League spot in two consecutive seasons. Instead of breaking players into her system, she broke her system to maximize the use of the players she got, demonstrating all her tactical flexibility.

Her men management skills, combined with harsh discipline, hunger for winning are keys to understand Stiles but for some, her tactical adaptability is probably the most potent weapon she possesses. And for Arsenal, who got nothing better than 1 Europa League run in the last 6 years to give their fans, the arrival of Stiles surely is hoped to be equivocal, indeed, with the tale of the prodigal daughter returns.”
Good luck, very detailed start to this. Will be following!
Good start. Best of luck!
A hotel lobby, Wednesday 7 July, 2039, present days

When Penny Stiles arrived in the hotel lobby, she saw Max, her analyst, waiting for her. «Hey minimax!
- Hey old hag!» he shot back.
- «Jon isn’t there yet?
- Nope. Shouldn’t be long though …» As he said the last word, they heard the elevator bell. Both turned their head. The elevator doors opened and Jon emerged from the car.
- «There you are you tardy!» said Penny.
- «Here I am you limping harpy! Still grumpy as usual I see!» She offered him a smile in response.
- «The damn edge was so high that I had to sit on it just to be able to enter the bath!» Max looked at her, dumfounded.
- «Your bath’s edge is that high?
- There was no rail to hold on to…» Both Jon and Max knew Penny very well and could easily imagine her, swearing in the bathroom…

Jon Stead met Penny Stiles for the first time almost fifteen years ago. She’s just been given the reign of Aston Villa and he had gotten an interview to become her Assistant Manager. If the first thing he noticed was the crutch, because it was unmistakable of course, the second thing was her eyes; they relayed determination, and ambition. The process took over one hour but in less than fifteen minutes, he was under her spell. Five days later, he signed his contract and since then, he blessed himself for accepting the call from the first woman manager in the Premiere League. When she left for the National team, she convinced him to stay at Villa but also to be her Assistant Manager with the Three Lions.

For Max Gunn though, it was a different story. He ignored her initial phone call for a job interview fourteen years ago; he was an analyst with Swansea at the time. He wouldn’t do the same mistake twice when she called again three years after. Villa was solidly entrenched in third place on the table at that time, and she would get her place in the Champions League. In the Europa League, she was in the Semi-Finals and, for what he saw, he thought she would reach the Final, and get her win; Villa was on fire since January already. She effectively did got it, and with style too; a soul crushing 6-0 win against poor Wolfsburg. When she left Villa, she asked him to follow her, on FA payroll, fulltime with the Three Lions.

The trio started to walk toward the exit and they could see a minibus with the Arsenal logo waiting for them, with a tall man in his thirties right in front of it. Once they exited the hotel, the man came to them at a brisk pace and with a wide smile. «Hi! I’m Eric and I am from the team’s hospitality crew». Penny extended her hand forward to shake the man’s. Jon and Max followed.
- «Thanks Eric. I’m Penny, here are Jon and Max.
- I hope all the accommodations are to your liking». Penny decided to put her personal pride away.
- «Everything is perfect. Shall we go?» The man waved the trio toward the vehicle.

As they hit the road, Penny got her tablet out and started to sift through some pages of text. Jon and Max stayed silent. They knew that she liked to re-read what she considers to be main topics of future discussion. Both men had talked at length during the flight from New York to London. Max had gotten a hold on every single reports, about all the players in the main squad and, with Jon, they went through them while trying to make them fit, or not, with what they knew. Penny, who was dead tired, simply withdrew from the talks by unfolding her sleeping seat; first class flights have privileges.

As the trio were getting out of the airplane, Max gave the excerpt of the different conclusions Jon and he had come to. At least, they knew four players very well. Domingo Ruiz, the goalkeeper, was bought by Penny seven years ago; he was among the top ten goalkeepers in the world. Diego Pearce and Leon Smith were both former Villa Academy players she integrated to the main squad rapidly. Finally, there was Reuben Edge, a solid central defender they learned to know and like with the Three Lions. They all thought, Penny first and foremost, that to have four players who had played for more than three or four years each for her in a club, would give leverage to her reputation. The fourth was a bonus; he knew her in a setting that was very different, where expectations are almost unbearable in England, whoever you might be. She wouldn’t be able to use Reuben and Leon right at start though; they both got a respite after the World Cup. As for Domingo, the man would be playing the World Cup final in three days…
Ben, good to see you over in this corner of the internet. Show off your talent!
Birmingham, Penny Stiles’ house, Sunday 2 May 2038

Penny has gotten five calls for interviews in the last two weeks. The end of the campaign in the Premiere League was two weeks away and she’s got calls from four of the league’s teams. Despite the season only ending in a month, she also got calls from two German teams in the Bundesliga. After taking a careful look at the teams, she’s decided to accept interviews with three: Manchester City, Arsenal and Bayern. Darren Crow, her agent, has asked her to postpone the decision by a few more weeks because he strongly suspected that Real Madrid and Inter would fire their managers in the coming days but she just wanted to get on with it.

As she was plugging her kettle, the doorbell rang. «Come in Max, it’s open!» she screamed at the top of her lungs. The analyst instantly opened the door. Dropping his jacket on the balustrade, he proceeded up the stairs. There was no ceremony. For two years now, he was coming to her house to work; he was living only three doors away. Since she was living alone, she had set up three giant screens and the FA had rigged a good network in the place; they’ve been watching every conceivable game to make tactical analysis and player evaluations.

«Hey Penny, I wasn’t supposed to work today… Got some more games sent?» Max said as he arrived at the top of the stairs. She usually would let him have Sundays off.
- «Nothing like that. Come at the island, the water will be ready soon» she answered.
She was in a pensive mood Max noticed, which wasn’t unusual, but it seemed to be different today he thought. He put his backpack by the kitchen wall and went to sit at one of the island’s stool. She had put cookies on a plate to accompany the tea. He almost laughed. She saw that the man was holding his laughter; she showed him a middle finger. She put her phone between them and selected Jon’s contact icon. She made the call and selected the freehand button at once. It rang three times before he picked up. «Hey Penny!» said Jon.
- «Hi Jon, I’m with Max right now.
- Hi Max!
- Hi Jon!» said Max. «Congrats for coming back in Premiere!
- F*** you!» The three of them laughed… but it was hollow.

Only two years after Penny left for the Three Lions, Aston Villa was relegated to Championship. The manager who replaced Penny emptied the hard accumulated war chest she had left behind. In two transfer windows, he spent over nine hundred million pounds in transfers, sold two third of the squad and exploded the wage budget from one hundred and thirty million pounds to two hundred and fifty million. From twenty three, the main squad became twenty seven players big. The club finished in eighth place; not even enough to qualify for a European competition. He was fired and a new manager came in. The remnant of the war chest was cleaned up and more players were brought in. The main squad ending up with thirty one players; four couldn’t even be registered. Mutiny ensued; he was fired before the January window. The one who replaced him couldn’t transfer the overstock because all the contracts were too high and because of all the unhappy players, the squad’s morale was at rock bottom, and it stayed there. The club ended the campaign in eighteenth position and got relegated. Eleven years of work, to bring the club to the top of the Premiere League, and third on the EUFA ranking, got scrapped in two years.

«Ok, we’ll have enough time to pull each other’s leg later» said Penny to stop the laughter. «I wanted to talk to you because both said you wanted to come with me to my new club after the National team, right?
- Yes, I did» said Jon on the phone while Max just nodded with his head.
- «Well, I have some news on that front and, before saying yes to a club, I want to know where you want to go». She saw Max lean a bit forward; he now knew why he had to work alone so often lately. «In the last weeks, I went to some interviews, three in fact. I got more calls than that, and my agent think I should have waited a bit for La Liga and Serie A to end because of Real Madrid and Inter… but I wanted to settle things quickly. As of right now, all three teams want to negotiate contracts with me: Manchester City, Arsenal and Bayern, in Munich. So, I have one question for you: Where do you guys want to go?» Both men stayed silent. She had to a start talking again. «So?
- Bayern?» said Jon at the end of the line.
- «Yes» answered Penny. «Opinion?
- City will be a hell hole!» said Max. «They have a rather young team but with huge contracts. That would make it difficult to do anything if we need to. Besides, they are eating managers for over ten years now. Arsenal is underperforming like crazy. Bunch of chokers maybe… or a succession of bad managers? They ate five of them in the last four years! I still think they should be in CL nonetheless with the squad they have. Bayern might be a hoot though. Great team, but getting old.
- I agree on City» said Jon on the phone. « For Arsenal, well, it’s London and I agree about underperforming. They gutted us by getting Diego and Domingo when we dropped and yet, they can’t do anything worthwhile! Bayern would be fun for sure; well establish team with great players but we probably would be managing a transition toward younger players. Their youth teams haven’t been good lately so, it would be market work mostly. I think it would be well suited for you though, a transition toward younger players…
- But which one do you want to go to Penny?» asked Max.
- «I don’t know… Well…» Max saw her becoming shy and this, he was surprized to see that. «…I must say Arsenal is pretty tempting. I come from there, you know? Bayern, I’d say it would be very fun to arrive in a good team with high expectations. I’m scared about the type of play though, very different from PL... City? I went because, well… I just wanted leverage against others clubs…
- Shrewd bitch!» said Jon. Max laughed.
- «Personally, I don’t really care» said Max once he got his composure back. «I asked to go with you after the Three Lions, I follow where you go and that’s it.
- Penny…» said Jon, «…it’s fun to go back to our roots…»
An impressive beginning to your story, I'm rather enjoying the dialogue. It has opened up into a world deep within to your FM save where we can see a tight bond between Penny and her two associates/friends. Bravo!
@justice tks for the kind words!


London Colney, Wednesday 7 July, 2039, present days
When Penny got out of the minibus, she saw the Arsenal logo on the brick wall by the main entrance. She went straight to it and slowly, delicately, passed her left hand over the sign, caressing it. She sighed and murmured: «I never thought I’d be yours again old friend…» Jon and Max followed her and stood on both her sides, staying silent. The trio stood in silence for a few seconds before going through the now open door of the main complex.

Once inside, a group of people was waiting for them. In the forefront was one of the two Managing Directors of the club, Kim Franssen. «Welcome home Penny, Jon and Max!
- Thank you ma’am» said Penny for the three of them.
- «I thought that it would probably be appropriate to let you see them before going any further…» said the executive. The group parted and in the back, stood ten former Arsenal Ladies players and coaches. Penny recognized them all and she felt the emotions coming up fast. Before she even could recover from the shock, all the women came to her to give her hugs. Some tears were shed in those first minutes at her new job. All the women came to her with the same bit, that had a taste from the olden days: «Welcome home Sarge!»

Both Jon and Max were seeing something they never thought possible; Penny was drowning in emotions, in public, and it wasn’t rage! Even when Villa made her a little ceremony for her departure, she didn’t shed a tear! If they found it funny, they also noticed something else: The manager of one of the biggest club in England, who was a woman, was met by another woman who was leading the ship as Managing Director. For them, to have Penny as a manager was no problem at all… If it ever was, it was long gone… but today, they thought they were part of a bit of history. They looked at each other and both smiled. As they looked away, they saw the executive come to them and offering her hand. They both got greeted personally. «Welcome to Arsenal. We’re happy to have you with us» she told them. It was Max that spoke first.
- «The pleasure is ours ma’am. We can’t tie our shoe laces without mum so, we follow!» The three of them laughed.

Once all the welcoming was over, Penny, Jon and Max got treated to a little tour of the facilities. She was surprised, and happy, to see that one of the people in charge of the facilities was a former Arsenal Lady; Sue Chambers. Cameras from Arsenal TV followed them and numerous pictures were also taken. After all the touring was done, Max went back to the Data Analysis Center to meet his boss and co-workers more thoroughly and Jon went to see the staffs that were already working with the squad outside. As for Penny, she had to go to a meeting with the club’s management.

The meeting ended at lunch and Penny was escorted toward the player’s cafeteria. Padraig Roche, the remaining Fitness coach, was waiting for her at the door. He would present the players and staffs who were there. She knew almost all of them, for playing against them with Villa; tunnels and post games handshakes does that. Lots of players got up and came to her, offering a handshake and presenting themselves. About twelve had come when, in front of her, stood Diego Pearce. She couldn’t keep it to herself: «You’re already here you lazy ass!!!» she said in a stern voice, so loudly that all in the place could hear. «What the hell was that? Quarter finals only??? Pfff!!!Even sooner than me!!!»
- «Sorry boss! My manager didn’t want to meet you… we caved!» he said with a big smile. Both of them started to laugh. A few seconds later, Diego started to speak again. The tone was now subdued, full of sadness. «It was like our last CL Final together boss… Everything perfect until the last tap… Four frameworks, two outward nets… Just nothing wanted to go in… Even during the shoot-out…» She saw the pain of the souvenirs in his eyes, which were becoming a bit glossy. «I’m happy to see you here boss…» he said before hugging her tightly, his head now engulfed in her shoulder and hair from her long ponytail.
- «I’m happy to be here my boy…» she answered, stroking her player’s hair gently while wearing a comforting smile.
The embrace between the two lasted for at least fifteen seconds. The sight of this 6”2’, 180lbs, man and the 5”11’, 150lbs, woman was something to watch... All in the cafeteria got to see a deep connection between the two but mostly, they all saw the respect Diego got for this woman with steely eyes. When he finally broke the hug, he wiped his eyes before lifting his head up to smile at her.
Jon, from his end, felt something creep in him. Penny, the woman who took this boy from the Academy when he couldn’t even shave yet, was looking at a world class midfielder, a superstar in all respect and scales, who, in turn, was showing her all the respect he could offer his boss who pretty much made him who he was today.

Jon’s thoughts slipped toward the shock that would hit the squad, which was witness to this embrace, during their first team meeting with her after lunch, especially following such a display of affection…
And people thought Klopp was close to his players! Great update.
«All is done as I asked?» said Penny to one of the facilities’ attendant.
- «Yes ma’am. Just make me a sign and we’ll start the song.
- Will it play loud?
- Oh yes ma’am!» said the attendant with a devious smile. «Just like a concert!» She returned the smile.

She went to her office to fetch the trophy replicas she had asked for. There was one for each of the competitions she had won: Premiere League, FA Cup, League Cup, Europa League, Champions League and Nations League. All were sitting on a little metal cart. Jon entered her office while knocking on the door. She was wearing a devilish smirk. «Can you roll the cart?» she asked.
- «Sure Penny. Are you certain you want to go at it that way?» he asked. He was having doubts about the little stunt.
- «You bet I am Jon!» she answered defiantly. «Even more so since Diego gave me that kind of a hug!» She started to walk without saying another word.

The pair arrived just outside the room. The door was closed and the attendant was standing by it, waiting. This meant that all were inside. She made him a hand sign. The attendant spoke into his talkie and three seconds later, the song started blasting in the room! Penny had chosen an old song that was her dad’s all-time favourite: “The Trooper” from an ancient heavy metal band: Iron Maiden. The song was the story of a single cavalry man dying during the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade. She let the first two bars play and then she opened the door. The music blasted through the open door and she worked hard to repress the smile that wanted to imprint on her face. When the first words of the song started to be heard, she entered, with Jon and the cart in tow.

Her facial expression was radiating arrogance and defiance. She quickly turned toward the table that was in the front of a whiteboard where the lyrics were projected, just like a karaoke machine. She didn’t look at anybody in the room and she had insisted that Jon do the same. She walked along the wall, watching the whiteboard at the same time. She was walking more slowly than usual; she wanted to reach the table only at the start of the second verse. She knew it was theatrical to the hilt but she wanted leverage, and fast. When she arrived at the table, she stood, immobile, while showing her back to the players. She was looking at the second verse lyrics on the board while Jon was rolling the little metal cart with the replicas behind her, where all could see them. He then joined her, turning his back on the players too. During the guitar solo, she felt a cold shiver down her spine; she liked the silence in the room, apart from the song of course. She turned toward the players as the last verse started. She brought her crutch in front of her and put her left hand to lay on her right. Once turned, she was looking more arrogant than she ever did, more than she ever thought she could, really…

The last verse was almost over now and she saw that the players were not looking at her, but at the lyrics on the whiteboard. There still was some surprise on their faces, even after three minutes of the song playing. She saw one player flinch at the one before last lyric of the last verse: «And as I lay forgotten and alone». She worked harder to keep her demeanor. The song ended abruptly; there was no fading out in death… She only let two seconds pass before she started to speak.

«Get so close, near enough to fight… Get so near, yet so far away… Fitting words for you guys, don’t you think?» Her voice was a tad aggressive, on purpose. She wanted to hit them where it’s supposed to hurt: their pride. «I won’t die forgotten…» she continued while picking the EPL trophy replica in her hand and lifted it for all to see. Two seconds later, she threw it across the room down to the floor. «I got four of those…» She repeated the gesture with the FA Cup replica. «Three of those I got too…» Her stare was as arrogant as she could make it. She took each replica in succession, without hesitations, saying the number she won every time, just before throwing them away. The replicas were all lying on the floor now. «And you? Got so close, near enough to fight… Got so near, yet so far away…» She caught the eye of Diego who was looking at her; he was in pain she saw. She knew he could take it …

«The real question though is unanswered! Were the managers not up to the task or was it you…» Her stare was piercing and she was seeking every single pair of eyes in the room. «…that weren’t up to the task? Where you badly led or are you nothing but chokers? Nothing but a bunch of wimps who are not strong enough to finish the work?» She saw that some took the last phrase very badly; she was happy with that. «Next year, this club is going to Europe. For that, I will make you discover the three keys to go there: Work, work and more work! You think you have worked hard to get here, right? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet! I can guarantee you that I am the real cast iron bitch who will ride your ass until you drop dead! I will also make you show, for all to see, how good you can really be! I did it before, multiple times! Just look at all those trinkets on the floor…» She knew she was skating on paper thin ice now… «I have nothing to prove to anyone now ‘cause all know I can do it… But you?» She was scanning the room. She saw that a lot of them felt the gauntlet she had thrown at them; it was a painful experience. She let the words sink in for five seconds before she started to walk back toward the door.

Half way there, she stopped and looked at the players again: «And for all of you who planned to come see me, crying to leave ‘cause you want to go to a club that is in a continental competition? I only have this to say: you will leave only when I know you are a choker or a wimp, not before!» She turned and walked for the door again. As she was passing it, she added, loudly: «Don’t you have a gym session to go to right now?»

Once outside, she looked at her watch. The entire meeting lasted a grand total of seven minute, including a four minute song before she started to speak. She was wearing a satisfied smile as she was walking toward her meeting with the analysts…
Penny was with Jon in her office. During the afternoon, he supervised the work of the team while Penny went to meetings and PR stuff like taking official photos and, most of all, giving multiple interviews. She was in a predictably foul mood. The sun still was relatively high and both of them were reviewing player cards and reports to try and figure out the type of system she could put on the pitch. It was obvious that the previous managers were playing a 4-1-2-3 but she didn’t understand why the DMs they had at the club, in her opinion, were so weak. «What do we know now? First, we have a team designed to play a 4-1-2-3 with the midfield mainly composed of technical guys who are pretty physically imposing. But, apart from Diego, none of them are defensively strong or good tacklers too; they’re average at best. Two, we have wingers that are all the same, except one. None can play anything but their strong foot. The only one that has two pegs is so slow, he can’t explode behind the defense so, he’s forced to cross the ball early. At least, he’s good at doing that. Most of all, none of them can play well defensively because they all are awful markers and tacklers, this mean that the midfielders must do all the work to get the ball back… Sigh…
- Penny, we must accept the fact that we have technical players in the midfield, except Diego, period. Endri Muça can do the job but he is a bit of coin toss on challenges to get the ball back. Once he has it, he is very good though…» said Jon.
- «Ok; technical only except Diego who is everything… Third, we have we have one of the best pair of forwards in the League with Moreno Brambilla and Leon. The problem is, we have three forwards with First team contracts or better so, we can’t play a lone striker in front without having one of them complaining about play time. Beside, our third best, Abdelaziz Kebbabi, well, I like him! At 6’5”, 200 lbs? He’s built like a bull… and you know I love those who are built like that!» she said with a sardonic smile. «At the other end of the pitch, finally, we have central defenders who can do the job extremely well with Reuben and Jack Goodbye plus, we have a third one, Tim Moore, that is powerful and aggressive but don’t jump as high as them... To that, we have to add Cenyr, our captain. He came in from the Arsenal academy almost twenty year ago and is playing is very last season since he’s 35 now; he should tell me he’ll retire at the end of the season. He’s very intelligent on the pitch but he’s just too slow now. On the sides, we have the same fullback duplicated three times: defensive guys who can’t go forward because they are either too slow, lack decision making skills or can’t cross or pass the ball correctly. That is when those three flaws aren’t combined into a single guy... In short, we have a rather physical crew, which I like, but except for Diego in the midf …» she was interrupted by a knock on her office door. «Come in!» Penny said loudly. A middle aged woman opened the door and passed her head inside.

«I’m sorry to disturb you ma’am, but we thought you would both be hungry since it’s seven o’clock now…» Penny watched the clock on the wall; it indeed was 19h00.
- «Great idea!» she said while smiling. «Could you call me Penny, please?» The woman, who was part of the kitchen staff, smiled and started to walk toward the meeting table with a little cart in front of her.
- «Of course Penny. As you wish. We still don’t know your tastes yet and, since you ordered the beans salad at lunch, we didn’t take any chance and made you a vegan plate. As for the man, we brought lemon chicken with some pasta salad since he took white meat. We also added some breads, you can see what’s in them on the little card under each of them, cheese and a plate of fruits and nuts for dessert. We got you hot water with various teas for you to choose from plus a thermos of coffee». Penny looked at the cart that was being rolled in; there clearly was effort put into the dish. She smiled to the woman again while Jon was looking at his plate with gusto.
- «Thank you very much. You are making the bread?» The woman nodded. Penny was impressed… «For myself, I eat pretty much anything… The only things I don’t like are licorice flavours or anything similar to it… As for the beans salad, to be honest, I felt like meat… but those three weeks in the United States for the World Cup, where they deep fry everything… I saw that my trousers were a bit… tight, this morning!» Penny saw that Jon refrained from making a joke; she would get him for that. «As for the man, I want him to only get calorie wise stuff since he’s getting love handles lately!» The woman became beet red while Penny, and Jon, started to laugh!
- «Just leave the cart in when you’ll leave; we’ll take care of it tomorrow morning ma… Sorry… Penny». Without another word, she turned heels and headed for the door.

Jon rolled the cart to the meeting table and started putting the plates on it. He quickly realized how hungry he was; his mouth was watering just by looking at the food. He took some of the breads’ cards and saw that there was some with lots of grains, some with nuts, and some with some spices… Penny joined him and both started to eat. There wasn’t much talk. It was a rule she put right at start; during meals, no shop talk was allowed when she wasn’t alone. When Penny was out of pasta salad with what tasted like kale, she asked Jon about Max. Jon smiled and said: «The bastard is probably at the hotel right now!
- You plan to watch tomorrow’s World Cup Final?
- Wouldn’t miss it for the world… If only I could have thought it possible to root for Germany!» Penny laughed, but it was a bit hollow; Spain has won the semi against the Three Lions; it was because of them they were here now instead of next week. Not to mention that Domingo, the former Villa goalkeeper, was with the Spanish National Team. After a few more bites of food and more moments of silence, she smiled devilishly before forgetting her own rule. Not permitting shop talk didn’t mean she wasn’t thinking about it…
- «How about we all give ourselves a semi-permanent heart attack?»
«Our main tactical stance will be a system based on a low block» said Penny to her tactical coaching and managing staffs. She could see in their eyes that the last part of the sentence made them flinch, just like it did with Jon yesterday night. «Since we have physical players in general, who are physically imposing, we will use that. On the pitch, we will do three specific things. First and foremost, we will play a rather low defensive line with little to no pressing coming from it. We have very good jumpers overall so, we will profit from this by intercepting crosses. Two, we have good, and rather fast, central midfielders but they aren’t used to play as defensive midfielders so, to close the gap between them and the defensive line, we will compress our lines as much as possible. We will engage the opponents only in our territory and we will harass them from behind and from every angle except for the defenders; the latter needing to stay at their position at all time. Finally, when attacking, only the six in front will be engaged directly. The defenders will have to stay back; it’s not like we can push our actual fullbacks forward because they can’t do anything offensively anyway…» Penny was seeing her peoples starting to put things together now.
- «Penny, this mean we will play long balls, right?» asked Jonathan Nolet, her U23 manager.
- «Long balls only? No, but we will often play more direct balls from the back, that is true. Especially since we will primarily put something akin to a 4-2-4, just like in the old days. To accommodate some players, we’ll also put a 4-2-3-1 at times but mainly against weaker teams.
- The key will be to play a bit narrower on defensive stances, to force the play on the wings, and then spread out on offensive phases» said Jon. He got up and went to the whiteboard and started to show the set-up.

Penny sat back and let him do his bit. God does she love the connection she made with this very offence minded man. When she has brought him in, she has just arrived at Aston Villa and she needed someone who would compensate for her usually more defensive minded tactics. Over the years, she saw how good they were when both of them were putting their minds together. Her more prudent approach combined with his more aggressive stance was a perfect mix that, in the end, produced awesome results. What the media called “The Big Change” with Villa, ditching the 4-2-3-1 for the 3-5-2, some of them nicknamed the pair “fish and chips”. The talks between the two have been hard at the time. It finally became an exercise of balance between “being a pussy and being a lion” he once told her! It was like they were a Klopp-Buvac pair when it came to tactics while the good cop/bad cop looked, as some said, a bit like the old Clough and Taylor pair…

She smiled internally because after three years together, she discovered that they also were a great good cop/bad cop duo as well. She naturally was the bad one; she was relentless with the players, always motivating them for more effort, more commitment. She was fair, she knew it; praising when it was deserved but when not… She was, at times, rough around the edges, to put it mildly, but with Jon, she never really had to do anything about it. He was the one that would comfort the players when it was needed. He wasn’t naturally inclined to be a mum but it grew naturally in him; he understood it was needed.

The rest of the meeting went rather smoothly. Some didn’t like the low block but she didn’t mind or care; most don’t like low blocks anyway. Just like the trope in the top leagues in the last twenty years have been to put systems with a lone strikers helped by a pair of inside forwards. Hence, 4-2-3-1s, 4-3-3s and 4-1-2-3s had been staples for years now. She prefers narrow formations, heavy in the midfield, with wingbacks providing the width and a strong pair of strikers in front; a real pair of strikers at that! After the fourth season with Villa, her constant results were achieved, over and over again, with a 3-5-2 that was becoming a 4-4-2 on defence. She knew, deep inside, that she would transformed the club for something like that but for now, she had five wingers who couldn’t play anything but wingers so, she had to make due. When it was over, she scheduled meetings with the U23 and U18 managers to make sure both would play the same system and to ask info about their respective squads. Once done, she headed off to her next meeting: the scouting crew.

When she arrived, she saw that Moonchi, the Director of football, the Head scout and the Head analyst were already there. «Am I late?» she asked.
- «No» said Ramon Rodriguez, her Head analyst. «We all just arrived!
- Good, shall we start then?
- Yep!» said Gilles Grimandi, her Head Scout.
- «Alright then» she said as she sat down at the table. «So, three small orders of business. One, the club’s short list? I want you guys to make me a good presentation of it for Monday afternoon. I want to know who you were watching and why. Second, I talked with the management and we will now go worldwide for all our research. Moonchi» she said looking at the Director of football, «…would you act on it please?» He nodded. «Finally, I want you to start by looking for wingbacks. Not fullbacks, wingbacks! I want someone able to go forward from the back, and before the transfer window closes!»
For her third day on the job, Penny had two things on her agenda. The second item was the one she was looking forward the most; the first training session on the pitch with the players. First though, she had to take a good look at the squads’ contracts and wages. On arrival, she had a little meeting with the Managing Directors and they brushed a quick picture of the finances: all that was related to her were within the planned budgets. To that, she has a little over forty-two million pounds available in transfer budget; she would need it for that wingback she was looking for and maybe some reinforcement in the midfield.

Once she was in her office, she opened her computer and started to work. The overall wages was a little staggering: two hundred and fifty million pounds per annum. She knew that there were a lot of players wearing the Arsenal colors but still… The main squad was composed of twenty five players and the average age of the squad was about twenty seven years old, which wasn’t bad. There still was three players over thirty two and none under twenty four. The latter being a bummer in her point of view. She also knew that the squad wages was among third or fourth in the EPL; this was very high but for now, since the club management didn’t raise any red flag, she’d go with it. She knew that she would reduce it at some point but she figured she had until the end of the season to start doing anything.

For the reserve squad, she was swimming into another kind of water. It was composed of forty three players, with eighteen of them that just returned from loans. She started by checking the basics: three players were old players that didn’t have the level to play for the main squad anymore. At least, all of them were on contracts that would run only for a year… but two of them were over ten million pounds per annum! There was seventeen players that were beyond their twenty first birthday so, this meant that to be able to use them as subs, in an injury crisis, she would need to have them registered… and the squad was already full so… She made herself a note to talk about this with the U23 manager before doing anything. As for the Academy issued players squad, other than being nineteen players strong, and that four of them were already eighteen years old, there wasn’t much to say. To have so many eighteen years old still was a bit too much for her taste … It was something to check with the U18 manager. As she was taking notes for the meetings, the alarm on her phone started to ring; it was time for the tactical training session outside; this was the next item on her agenda, and the one she knew she would like better.

As Penny was arriving to pitch number three, she saw that the small scaffold with stairs, not a ladder, was already on the side of the pitch. On it was a gigantic magnetic withe board plus a little tarp, just in case. The players were slowly gathering around the scaffold after their warm-up session. As for the staffs, Jon was there, Tim Bakens, her Offence coach and Andy Butler, the Defence coach. All already knew what system they would practice. Penny started to get up the stairs. As she arrived at the top, she noticed that a few water bottles were there too; Sue, her ex-teammate, had thought of everything…

«Good day men!» she said when she saw that all the squad was there. «Now that you all got a good look at the way we’ll play with Jon, Tim and Andy, it’s time we put some of it on the pitch to get a feel of it all. First, we’ll work on defence…» The squad were split in yellow and red teams. Once all the players were in place, she reminded them some of instructions and then, the players started to play. At one point, she saw something and blew her whistle twice to stop the players: «Stay where you are!» she said loudly. The reds were in possession and just crossed the midfield line. She called on the pair of midfielders, Endri Muca and Diego. «Endri and Diego! You should be lower than that! Remember, the D-line is playing lower so you are the ones who are supposed to compress the space between the midfield and them». Endri looked around.
- «Boss, should I go at them instead?» She looked at the space.
- «Not as of now. Since yellows are playing the same way, your man is in midfield but your task is to force the forwards to go into the D-line, not to cover them.
- But…» Penny interrupted him.
- «Endri, for now, we’ll focus on the defensive phase since it is the scenario in play at the moment. Just focus on the tasks at hand, ok? Drop enough to force their frontline to go at our d-line and cover the midfielder assigned to your space. Cut the vertical line of passing and that’s it». With the Three Lions, she learned to appreciate the player but he was prone to lapses in concentration. Despite being a rather good deep lying playmaker, he was often more inclined into putting himself into a mode where he would start to think at the transition, if and when the ball would be recuperated, instead of focusing on making sure the ball was recuperated first. This meant that he would often position himself a wee bit too high, giving precious space to be exploited by a forward willing to play a little in front of the D-line.
I'm thoroughly enjoying this story to date. Some very detailed dialogue occurring here, making the story feel like a novel rather than an FM story. A true credit to the work that has gone into this, transforming a game into a tale of epic proportions.
Tks for the comment Justice!


She was getting a late work dinner with Jon and the rest of the coaching staff. All afternoon, the team had been playing scenarios on two phases of play, defence and offence. «I think we should ask the men to regroup a bit more before going into pressing» said Andy.
- «I concur» said Penny while buttering some bread. «I think we should also ask the forwards to press even more right from the start.
- A fast and quick transition will be difficult to do if they’re out of position» said Tim.
- «Naw» answered Jon. «With the pace and acceleration our forwards have, I don’t think it’s an issue. At worst, we’ll instruct to lump over the d-line in those situations, and that would be it.
- But the transition will be uncertain, wouldn’t it?» asked Penny. She knew Jon was better at this and wasn’t afraid to ask the question.
- «I’d say we may lose some opportunities because of bad balls here and there but Leon, Moreno and Abdelaziz have the pace…. Beside, when push comes to shove, when this scenario will happen, there’ll only be one out of the play so, the other will put himself into position anyway.
- I think Jon is right» added Tim. «At worst, can we tell them not to press at the same time?
- That could be done» said Penny. «The only thing I want is to have a press coming from behind the opponent. We let them come deep and when they are working to set themselves up for a shot, they need to constantly watch their back.
- If we focus on working on them only two third inside our territory, the lines would be so compressed anyway…» Andy chimed in. This was where Penny was sitting on the fence. Yes, this is what she wanted but it was the transition forward, once the ball was back to the Gunners, this was what was bothering her; where were the starting blocks? Just at that moment, Jon came back into the conversations.
- «Look, Moreno is a lefty, Leon and Abdelaziz are righties. If our main pair in front is Moreno and Leon, then let’s put Moreno on the right side of the pair and Leon on the left since Diego would be used on the right midfield position. Moreno is a great advanced forward but is not as good at pressing. As for Leon, we all know that he can do pretty much anything; he’s strong, agile, can press, got great balance, decent tackling abilities and can jump. All of them have pace. So, we ask Leon to do everything in front. He will do the pressing and harassing from behind for, let’s say, the vertical two third of the pitch. We then asked Moreno to press only in the last vertical third. While Leon will show his great work rate, for a striker, we’ll ask Moreno to probe the d-line and to keep both his feet in the starting block just like for Abdelaziz. Whatever the outcome, all can outpace pretty much every single defender in the league. As for the transition itself, we have two great guys in midfield that can pretty much play every option with a good degree of success. If the ball is lumped over the d-line, Moreno and Abdelaziz will run. If we can build from the back, Endri and Diego can do that…»

When Penny kicked them out of the office at 20h00, she was satisfied. The talks have been very productive; all the players’ instructions for the defence phase have been laid down and some basic ones for offence as well. There still was some talking to do for the offence itself, and its transition, but it would need a bit more time. As she sat at her desk, she saw that there was a voicemail on her personal cell. «Good evening Mrs. Stiles, this Betty Olson. I just wanted to tell you that the clean-up of your flat is done and that I’ll supervise the moving of your things tomorrow. If there are modifications as to where things must go, please call me. As we agreed, I’ll be waiting for you at 18h00 to give you your keys and finish the paperwork and billing. Have a nice day». Penny smiled. She was happy to think she would be sleeping in her own bed tomorrow night; she was tired of the hotel. Both Jon and Max already were in their new home since yesterday. Unlike her, they still were married and, in the case of Max, still have kids at home. Their wives supervised everything, but it wasn’t possible for Penny. At least, she has enough money now without having to bother with a lot of stuff. Betty was a professional home organizer and she did pretty much everything for her; even finding her a house cleaner!

Before she left, she texted Britanny, her daughter. “Should be able to sleep in my own bed tomorrow. How about you come to visit my new place soon?” She sighed when she pushed the “Sent” button. It was over a month since she got news from her daughter. It’s true that she went abroad for the World Cup but still… She started to get her things and went back to the hotel. When she passed her room door, her phone beeped. “Will call tomorrow.” As usual, the response from the daughter was… short; very short…
When all the lights were out, Penny slowly drifted toward sleep, thinking of how good it would be to be in her own bed tomorrow night. That was even without thinking about the opportunity to see Britanny again…

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