AN: It's finally here. The honest-to-god last chapter. I've really and truly finished it.
I have to give endless thanks to my beta, Rianne. I would have given up on this story by about Chapter Three if she hadn't pushed me to keep writing. She has been a sounding board, comma police, and really excellent friend. So, thanks, buddy.
Also I should definitely thank Real John, for not only allowing me to mess around on his canvas, but actively encouraging it. Few fans are so lucky.
Here we go…
It was five-thirty in the morning on the day of the FA Cup final. Manager John had not had a decent night's sleep in over a week.
He stood in the middle of his cramped office, examining the white board in front of him. There was a drawn-up plan of the pitch on the board, with eleven little red circles placed on it. Within each of the circles was a number written in black pen. Manager John had been obsessing over these little red circles for upwards of two weeks. 11, 9, 15, 25, 16, 17, 19, 29, 20, 4, and 2. His starting line up. He was staring at numbers, but saw the players they represented in his mind's eye. Should 25 – Lee – move back to defense? Should 6 – Cteve – sub for 18 – Beef Stock? Was he only allowing Ginger to start so that he could redeem himself after last year's final? Was that the kind of sentimentality that would lose him the FA Cup for the second year in a row?
"I've been waiting for this for so long," he whispered to himself in the empty room.
He sighed and sat down on the edge of his desk, still contemplating the little red circles on the board. It was too late for second-guessing now. Changes to the line-up on the morning of the match would suggest to his boys that he didn't have faith in their ability, and nothing could be further from the truth. He had nothing but pride, love, and respect for them all. The time for training was over, though. He needed to let go and trust his boys to bring it home.
There were times when Manager John really missed Patrick. His Assistant Coach was a narrow-minded, bigoted old fool, but still. He had also been calm, efficient, and incredibly reliable. He had always been ready, with a firm word, to bring John back down to earth when his flights of fancy got the better of him. He had a keen eye and was quick to identify faults or weaknesses in the team that John himself would never have caught. Patrick had a completely different coaching style. He drank too much and was rougher with the players than John would have liked. He had a short temper and far too much pride. But he'd been sharp, and John hadn't realized just how much he'd depended on the little Irishman until he was gone. Of course that wasn't to suggest that John regretted showing him the door. At his core, Manager John was an idealistic man, who believed that football could be made a classy, honorable sport once again.
He sighed and looked down at the stacks of files on his desk. The top file said 'Emilio Bolzoni' across the side. A yellow post-it note was stuck to the front of it. In Manager John's own messy handwriting, he'd written '8:00am'. He glanced at his watch. Still two hours before his first meeting. Just enough time to take a nap on the floor.
"For Chrissake, Em', it's the bloody FA Cup! Morning of, no less! I got you the tickets 'n everything last week. You're telling me now that you can't be arsed to make the trip?"
Cteve inhaled aggressively on his cigarette until he caught the filter in his lungs. Wedging his mobile phone between his shoulder and his ear, he flicked a second cigarette out of the pack and lit it from the dying embers of the first. He took another drag on the fresh one. It did little to calm his nerves, but at least it gave him something to do with his hands.
Cteve had always been a terrible fidgeter, even when he was a kid. He used to chew the ends of pens until they broke and all the ink spilled out onto his mouth. He remembered the way his mother would tisk her tongue in frustration and rub at his face with a damp flannel until his skin turned bright red.
"What did you expect, Christopher?" Emily continued, drawing Cteve back into their conversation. He knew she was only using his name to wind him up, so he bit back a retort and let her continue. "You only told me about this last week! We can't just drop everything and come running. It's a long journey and the trains are expensive –"
"I'll pay for the sodding train, if that's what you're –"
"This isn't about the train!" Emily shot back. Cteve took the phone into his hand and moved it a little away from his ear. "Work's very busy at the moment; I can't just take the day off…" Seeming to sense that Cteve was about the object again, Emily spoke louder and faster as she continued. "And Holly's got a dance recital today! She doesn't want to travel for five hours to watch you run around for twenty minutes. She wants to dance in her recital." Emily let out a huffing noise of frustration. "She doesn't even like football, Christopher!"
"And whose fault is that?" he spat.
"You can't hold me responsible for Holly's taste. She's old enough to decide what she enjoys and what she doesn't." Despite her words, there was no missing the self-satisfied smugness of Emily's tone. Bitch, Cteve thought mercilessly.
"I want her there, Em." Cteve lowered his voice into a kind of plea.
Emily sighed. "Hold on… Alright, she's just waking up. You can ask her yourself." Cteve heard some shuffling noises on the other side of the phone. "Holly, sweetie?" Emily's voice sounded much further away. "Your daddy's on the phone, do you want to speak to him?"
Cteve could distantly hear the sound of Holly's voice, and his heart leapt at the sound. She was too far away for the words to be distinct, but the voice was unmistakably hers. "Come on, luv," Emily said, still speaking to Holly, "I know he wants to say hi…" Emily's voice was kind and gentle when speaking to Holly in a way that it hadn't been with Cteve for a very long time. He missed it, all of a sudden. The way Emily's voice would quaver softly when she was happy, as though she was constantly on the verge of bursting into peals of joyous laughter. Or the way a dimple would appear prominently on her chin every time she smiled. It had been nearly a year since he last saw her. He wondered if he could still make her smile. He doubted it.
Finally, after Cteve felt like he'd been waiting for an hour, Holly's gorgeous little voice sounded in his ear. "Morning Da'." She had the most beguiling Scottish accent Cteve had ever heard. It was charming enough that he could almost forgive Emily for taking his daughter all the way up there without him.
"Hey, Holly Polly! How are you, lovely?"
"It's early!" She yawned loudly into the phone. "The sun's not even up yet! But Mummy's making me breakfast, then I'm going to go to school, then I'm going to go to dance class, then we have a recital in the evening! Did Mummy tell you? I have a solo! Are you coming to see me?"
Cteve felt something hard well up in his throat. "Sorry, sweetheart, I can't. I've got… I've got kind of a recital myself this evening."
"Really?" Holly sounded childishly skeptical. "What kind?"
"It's the football kind. You remember I play football?"
"Oh yeah…" She didn't sound like she remembered that at all. "Will lots of people be watching?" she asked instead. "We have to perform in front of all the parents and friends. Mrs. Grady said there might be twenty people there!"
"That's a lot!" Cteve agreed. "A couple of people will be watching mine. Maybe you'll be able to come see one of my recitals one day…"
"First you have to come and see one of mine!" Holly persisted. She didn't sound angry, but there was a definite hint of disappointment there. Cteve's heart sank.
"Okay baby, I'll come to your next one, how's that?"
Cteve could feel her pout through the phone. "Okay," she said at last.
"Okay…" Cteve sighed. There was a pause during which Cteve could hear Emily's voice calling in the background. "So how are things at home, Holls?" he asked.
"Fine, but I have to go. Mummy says breakfast is ready and that my eggs will get cold. Byeeeee!"
"Bye sweetheart! Could you pass me back to your mum –" Thick silence filled Cteve's ear and made him stop speaking. Holly had already hung up.
He stood on his tiny balcony for a little while, finishing his third cigarette and watching the sun rise in Swindon. The air was cold and damp outside at this time of the morning, but he didn't care. This was Cteve's favourite time of the day. He'd never been able to sleep very well, and the view of the sunrise from his balcony was spectacular. The sky was smeared with vivid oranges and pinks, like a child had finger-painted the clouds. Apparently the richness of colour had something to do with the air pollution from the industrial district. As far as Cteve was concerned, it was worth it.
The sliding glass door squeaked from behind him. The brunette he'd picked up in the bar the night before was awake, then. He heard her bare feet step out onto the balcony.
"What you doing out here?" she asked. "It's seven in the morning!" Cteve looked around at her. She was wearing nothing but her lace pants from the night before and a t-shirt of his that he hadn't worn in ages. He could only assume that she'd gone into his dresser to get it. He sighed. No wonder Emily thought he was terrible father material. She was probably right. Not for the first time, he wondered whether she hadn't done the right thing in taking Holly to the other side of the country.
"Fuck, I need a drink," he muttered to himself. It was going to be a long day.
Sir Cuthbert walked up to the door of Manager John's office and knocked tentatively. The clock on the wall of the locker room said it was five minutes to noon. Cuthbert was a little early for their meeting, but he didn't think it would matter.
"One minute," Manager John's voice called out crisply from the other side of the door. Obediently, Cuthbert waited.
Three minutes later, he heard some shuffling inside the room, and the door to the office opened. To Cuthbert's mild surprise, Bodin Bodin emerged looking ashen-faced. A tight knot formed in Cuthbert's stomach. It was as he feared, then. Cuthbert opened his mouth to say something to his friend, but Bodin pushed roughly past him.
"Save it," he snapped angrily as he marched towards the exit.
There was nothing for it. Cuthbert could feel the axe swinging over his head, but he had no choice. He entered Manager John's office. His coach was sitting behind the desk, looking at him glumly.
"Close the door, Sir."
Cuthbert did. He stood awkwardly for a moment before sitting down in the chair that Bodin had no doubt just vacated. Manager John rubbed the bridge of his nose. Despite his own concerns, Cuthbert was not blind to how terrible his coach looked. The bags under his eyes were dark and swollen. He looked like he hadn't slept, showered, or shaved in days.
"You alright, coach? If you don't mind my saying so, you look appalling."
Manager John laughed dryly. "Thanks!" He sat back in his chair and took a slow breath. "It's been a long week, that's all."
"Well, coach," Cuthbert's voice was quite even, "maybe you shouldn't have put off these termination meetings until the day of the FA Cup final."
Manager John paled a little. "Maybe not," he agreed with a soft nod. "I'm not firing you, though!" he continued, as though he'd only just realized what Cuthbert had said, "I'm just transferring you."
"Six of one, half dozen of the other," Cuthbert replied. He felt calm, all things considered. It wasn't as though he hadn't known this was coming. He'd spent a lot of time warming the bench in the past two years. If he didn't see a lot of playing time when they'd been down in League One, he could hardly be considered Premiership material.
"I'm sorry." Manager John rubbed the bridge of his nose again. It had turned red under the force of it.
"It's not your fault," Cuthbert assured him. "You were right, what you said to Cteve and the rest of us after his interview with the Gazette; it's just the price of doing business. It's not your fault that we're not as good at football as Bald and Other John. It's not their fault either. It's not even ours. It's just the way of things."
Manager John blinked. "That's, uh, not a position that some of your teammates shared."
Cuthbert shrugged. "Doesn't make it any less the case. So where are you sending me?"
Manager John sat up and sifted through a file with Cuthbert's name on it. "Hexham FC. They're really quite a good team," he said earnestly.
At this, Cuthbert laughed aloud. "No, coach," he replied, still chuckling despite the sinking feeling in his stomach, "they really aren't."
"You haven't even seen them play!" his coach insisted.
"True, but I've also never heard of them. I'm a professional footballer, and I didn't even know Hexham had a team. I don't even know where Hexham is!"
"It's in Northumberland," Manager John muttered sheepishly. "About twenty minutes outside of Newcastle."
"The North, coach?" Cuthbert exclaimed indignantly. "Not even that! Birmingham is in the North – this may as well be in Scotland!"
"It is quite close to Hadrian's Wall, actually." Manager John spoke as though this fact was interesting and not the most dreadful thing Cuthbert had ever heard. He let out another noise of indignation.
"What happened to all your pragmatic 'it's the way of things' stuff?"
"Yes, well, that was before you were sending me to live with Geordies."
Cuthbert was only half-joking. It wasn't Northumberland that he objected to specifically, but the situation had abruptly become real. It was one thing to suspect that he wouldn't be able to continue playing with the Swoodilypoopers, and a whole other thing to hear that he was being sent to the other side of the country to play for a barely-professional team in the back and beyond.
"I really am sorry, Sir." Manager John said after a moment.
Cuthbert sighed. "You know I'm not actually a knight, right?"
"Of course." Manager John nodded. "It's just a nickname."
There was silence between them for a moment. Cuthbert felt he should probably leave and let his coach get on with firing more of his friends, but he couldn't bring himself to move.
"My father was," he said eventually. "Is, I should say."
"Is what?" Manager John asked.
"A knight. He was knighted by the Queen at some point in the 80s."
Manager John let out a surprised laugh. "I didn't know that! Why? What did he do?"
Cuthbert shrugged. "Something to do with the government. He had the dubious honour of being a Tory MP during Thatcher's great reign. He explained it to me a couple of times, but I never really understood. I expect he saved the country a load of money at the expense of half its population. Other than being a famous actor, isn't that the kind of thing people have to do to get themselves a knighthood?"
Manager John cracked a small smile. "I wouldn't know."
They lapsed back into silence. Still, neither of them moved.
"Why does no one ever call you by your first name?" Manager John asked suddenly.
Cuthbert was a little taken aback. "I don't know." He shrugged in his self-effacing way. "I always assumed it was because Nigel is a bit of a ridiculous name."
At this Manager John laughed aloud, and some kind of tension or stalemate between them was broken. Cuthbert rose from his chair and offered his hand to his coach.
"Thanks for everything, coach."
"It's been a real pleasure, Nigel."
The call came for Voluptuous at two in the afternoon, just half an hour before he needed to go meet the team at the bus.
"Âllo?" Voluptuous said, picking up the phone on its second ring. It would always be his instinct to answer in French, no matter how many years he'd lived in the UK. On this occasion, his instinct proved correct.
The man greeted him in the rich, fluid, familiar French of Ivory Coast. "Bonjour. Je cherche monsieur Péricard?"
When Voluptuous had confirmed that he was indeed Voluptuous Pericard, the man introduced himself as the Manager of a football team from Ivory Coast called Jeunesse Club d'Abidjan. As the man said his piece, Voluptuous leaned forward on the couch, listening intently. Alice – who had been resting her head on his shoulder – sat up alongside him. He could feel her eyes on him throughout his phone call.
When the man had finished speaking, Voluptuous thanked him politely and promised to get back in touch soon. He hung up the phone numbly. Had that really just happened?
"What is it?" Alice asked. She'd waited, patient and silent, while he'd been on the phone, but the suspense was clearly killing her.
"JC d'Abidjan would like to offer me a job. Starting defense…"
She let out a short gasp of thrilled surprise, and bounced slightly on the springy couch. "What an incredible opportunity!"
Voluptuous nodded. His mind was reeling in shock. Just last week Manager John had taken him aside after practice to inform him that – if he should want it – there was a spot with the Swoodilypoopers available for him next season. They wanted to keep him. They wanted him to play in the Premiership. Voluptuous had thought his prayers had been answered. This new offer, though… it bore thinking about.
Bald John was not the only player to have suffered injuries that season. Voluptuous himself had been out for nearly half the season with a torn tendon. Too much strain still caused the pain to flare up in his leg, even now. To make matters worse, he was already in the latter days of his career. Even at the peak of his physical ability, Voluptuous would only barely have been considered Premiership material. He had no illusions about the extent of Manager John's loyalty. Voluptuous might have a spot on the team, but that didn't mean he had a spot on the pitch.
"What do you think we should do?" he asked Alice. He shifted on the couch to face her and took both of her hands into his. She met his eyes with her steady, calm gaze.
"I think, my love, that this is a question of what you would like your priorities to be. And – maybe more so – what you would like to encourage our sons to prioritize in their own lives. There are two paths you could take: you could remain loyal to Swindon Town, a team that has certainly done a lot for us in the past five years. We could remain here. You would have a good reputation, as a player in the top league, but you would not get to play very much once the team is in the Premiership."
Voluptuous nodded, but said nothing, waiting for her to finish what she wanted to say.
"That is the first path," she said. "The second path would be to return home. You could play for an African team. Your name would not be in the British newspapers, and Gary Lineker will never talk about you. But, we could raise the boys among the rest of our family. They could get to know their cousins and aunts and uncles, some of whom they have never met. We could look after your parents and mine, as they get older. We could earn more money to pay for any education the boys might want to have. I could get a job myself, and not need to worry that our visas might expire. We would be able to provide for our family, even after your career is long over."
"You think that is what we should do, then?" Voluptuous asked.
"I think you are the man I chose to love, and if you decide that the Swoodilypoopers are your family and you cannot be parted from them, then I will support you, as I always have."
Voluptuous looked down at their clasped hands. He drew his fingers softly across the lines on her palms, thinking.
"The Swoodilypoopers are my team, and I love them," he said at last. "But you, the boys, and everyone we left behind in Ivory Coast, are my family. When our boys ask me what my favourite thing in the world is, I do not want to be a hypocrite when I tell them that it is not football, but you."
Alice smiled her wonderful open smile, her white teeth bright against her dark features. It was the smile that had made him fall in love with her when they were still only teenagers, and the smile that still adorned her features every time he caught her eye in the stands of the County Ground.
"We have been away from home long enough," Voluputous concluded.
The team's bus pulled into Wembley stadium at four in the afternoon. That was good, Daniel Lucas thought. It would give them plenty of time to get settled in and warm up. He wasn't sure when it had happened, but somewhere along the line in the past year, Lucas had stopped thinking like a player and started thinking like a coach. He clambered down the stairs of the bus, and jogged a couple of steps to catch up with Manager John. They walked side-by-side towards the players' entrance of the stadium.
"Never thought we'd be back here so soon," Lucas said, taking in the monumental structure in front of them. The glassy exterior was glinting so brightly in the afternoon sun that Lucas had to shield his eyes from the glare.
Manager John looked over at him. "Really? I had no doubt in my mind we'd make it back. You have to be sure, Luke. Because if you can't believe that they'll win, how can they?"
"Do you think we can win, though, coach?"
A look came over Manager John's features for a moment, just a flash, and then it was gone. Lucas thought it might have been hope. "Absolutely," he said at last, his voice as sure as anything.
Not for the first time, Lucas had the distinct impression that he was being groomed for leadership. It was a strange feeling, that of all the people on the team, Manager John had chosen him – a fat, alcoholic, middle-aged keeper with a very poor save percentage – as a possible successor.
"Thanks, coach." He didn't know why Manager John had chosen him, but he was incredibly grateful all the same.
Fat Lucas didn't hate his nickname as much as everyone assumed. He'd learned to embrace it a long time ago, to the point that it had become a term of endearment as opposed to a slur. One of the things he'd learned while he was recovering from his alcohol addiction was that it was no one else's job to make him happy. There were many things in his life that he regretted or that he wished he'd done differently. But it was up to him to reconcile himself to his choices and try to find happiness all the same. Walking into the players' entrance of Wembley stadium for the second time, surrounded by the team he loved, Lucas thought he'd never been happier in his whole life.
His last ever professional match would be played against Chelsea FC, in a packed stadium of 90,000, with the Swindon Town Swoodilypoopers at his back. He wanted to win, he really did, but he thought he could die happy either way.
The air in the locker room was thick with anticipation and fear. The team began to dress in tense silence. All except Parry Parry, who hadn't been with the team for the FA Cup final last year and was taking in the locker room in wide-eyed amazement.
"This place is a freaking five-star hotel!" he exclaimed, breaking through the deathly quiet. "Have you seen the showers? The towels are embroidered!"
Other John, who was getting kitted up nearby, grinned at Parry. "Don't get too comfortable. We'll be back in good-old slightly-flooded County Ground before long."
"I don't see why we couldn't steal some of their aesthetic ideas, though," Bald John put in mildly from John's other side. "Coach? What do you think? Can we get some embroidered towels?"
"In red," Lee added.
"With the Swoodilypooper crest sewn on," Fitz chimed in. "And maybe some branded water bottles too."
"Glass ones," Cteve added.
"The benches could use a paint job, too."
"It's true," Lucas added, grinning. "These benches are all… shiny. Our benches aren't shiny!"
"What do you reckon, coach?" Other John continued. "Can we redecorate the locker room back home?"
"The walls could use some more colour," Ginger agreed. "Maybe they can be red too?"
"Or a mural!" Lallana said excitedly. "I know some artists –"
"Alright, alright!" Manager John cut them off. "Tell you what, boys," he called over their fits of laughter, "you win this match today, I'll hire a whole team to come in and fill the locker room with leopard print and shag carpets, how does that sound?"
"That sounds dreadful, coach. We'll clearly have to do it ourselves," Lee replied brightly.
"Deal," Manager John agreed.
The team laughed; all tension and fear had melted away in their excitement. Lucas watched the smile that passed between the Johns a moment later. They'd done that on purpose, he realized, to help the boys blow off some of their nervous energy before the match. Lucas made a mental note of that. However much he still had to learn from Manager John, he thought Bald and Other John might also be able to teach him a thing or two.
"Boys." Manager John's voice quivered slightly as he called them back to attention. The good humour in the air shifted. The boys – freshly dressed in their red and white kit – took their seats on the too-shiny benches and looked up at their coach in silent attention. "You're playing in Wembley Stadium. Again. Some of the best footballers in the world can play for a whole lifetime and never see a minute inside this stadium. You get to fight for the FA Cup for the second year running. Getting here once was unlikely. To be here again… it's nothing short of a miracle, boys. Whatever happens on that pitch today, we've already won. In four years, we've progressed from League Two to the cusp of the Premiership, and that's down to all of you. You've let me train you and teach you. You've let me mold you into fine young men and extraordinary footballers. And you've repaid me in your dedication and your talent. I am enormously proud of you all."
There was a beat where it seemed as though Manager John might continue speaking. His emotions seemed to get the better of him, however, and he waved a hand airily.
"I'm sick of the sound of my own voice," he smiled. "I've got nothing left to say. Let's go win the FA Cup, shall we?"
It was one in the afternoon in West Virginia. Matt, Nate, and their mother were huddled around Nate's laptop, watching the FA Cup stream illegally. Matt had popped the popcorn and Sheila had brewed the coffee. With rapt attention, they watched the match begin.
The ESPN commentators of the match were fond of pointing out that Johnny was American. Every time they spoke about him it was "American forward, Bald John Green," "famous American soccer player, Bald John Green." The way they spoke about him, it was as though John belonged to the whole country.
Nate kept complaining about it.
"He's our brother! What're they doing, talking about him like they know him – like he's their buddy."
It was kind of sweet how protective Nate was being, but Matt thought his baby brother was probably overreacting. For his part, all Matt could feel was immense pride.
Other John sent a pass to John, and Matt watched as the pair of them ran down the field towards the Chelsea goal. They looked strange: tiny and in the grainy quality of an online video. It felt so surreal, trying to reconcile the little characters on Nate's computer screen with his brothers. Matt wished he could be there, but school and work had prevented any of them from making the trip.
The front door banged open and closed again.
"Sorry we're late!"
"How much did we miss? Has anyone scored?"
Myles and Richard rushed in from the foyer; their shoes still on, and still dressed in their work clothes.
"No score yet," Nate informed them, not taking his eyes off the screen.
Sheila rose from her chair and went to fetch two more for Myles and Richard. She returned from the kitchen and set the chairs before them. Richard kissed her forehead in thanks and took the seat on the end, leaning over the arm of the couch to see Nate's computer screen.
"How's it been going?" he asked.
"Not bad so far," Matt said. "They've had a few good chances, but we're only twenty minutes in. Plenty could still happen."
"And how long's the period, again?" Myles asked.
"It's not a period, it's a half," Matt explained. "It's 45 minutes, plus a couple of minutes injury time at the end."
Myles nodded silently. Soccer would never be his sport, but Matt appreciated that he was making the effort, at least. He didn't know all the details of what had happened between Myles and John, but he knew enough. They had reconciled as far as it was possible for them to do so. Matt had always trusted that they would. Myles could be hot-headed, defensive, and obstinate, but he was also fiercely loyal, and no amount of disagreement could shake his love for his brother.
"Oh look, it's Johnny!" Myles said, pointing to a blurry image of John on the screen.
"Careful, Myles, your enthusiasm is showing." Nate grinned.
Myles responded with a carefully aimed punch to his youngest brother's arm. Nate yelped in pain, and Sheila reprimanded Myles with a gentle cuff to the back of the head.
"Manners," she scolded.
"Sorry, Mom," Myles and Nate chorused back to her.
They watched in silence for a few minutes, until a particularly good attempt by Other John to head the ball past the Chelsea keeper. Matt, Nate, and Myles rose in excitement, only to collapse back down onto the couch when the keeper caught the ball. Myles let out a quiet groan of disappointment.
Matt grinned and wrapped a gentle arm around Myles' shoulder. "We'll make a soccer fan of you yet, brother!"
Hannah Macmillan groaned so loudly when Cech caught John's header that she drew scandalized looks from the BBC and Sky photographers next to her.
"Sorry," she muttered, blushing.
The bloke from the BBC flashed her an awkward smile, but the action of the match quickly drew his attention back to the task at hand. The air was again filled with the loud clicks of fast, high-powered cameras.
Before returning to her own camera, Hannah quickly wrote down 37th min, header from OJ, utter failure, in the Moleskine notebook lying open on the table beside her. Setting down the pen, she peered back down the view of her camera. It could hardly hope to compete with the high-definition rapid-frame-rate of the cameras some of her competitors were using, but it was her best and favourite. The zoom was good enough that she could see the beads of sweat on Ginger's forehead as he battled Drogba at the top of the Swindon box. Ginger won the tackle in the end, and punted the ball forward to Fitz. Hannah, ever watchful, focused the camera on Fitz now, and took a few more photos as he danced the ball past Frank Lampard. He got cocky, though, when he tried to pass back to Beef Stock. Lampard easily intercepted and took the ball out of Swindon Town possession. Without looking up from her camera, she groped for the pen and wrote Fitz: excellent control, terrible passing.
Possession bounced rapidly from Chelsea to Swindon for a few minutes: first Terry, then Lallana, back to Terry, to Cole, re-possessed by Lee, to OJ, to Bald John, re-possessed by Bosingwa. She didn't notice the ache in her arms as she whipped the heavy camera across the field, she was so absorbed by the lighting-fast speed of play. In all her years following the Swoodilypoopers, she'd never seen a match like it.
It felt like play had only been going on for five minutes before the referee was already blowing the whistle for halftime. Nil-nil, standard Swoodilypooper, added to her notes. Of course she wouldn't actually say that in the article, but the notes she took during the match were hardly comprehensive. That's what Peter was for.
Hannah experienced all Swindon Town matches through the lens of her cameras. She followed her boys around the pitch like an eagle watching its prey. Or like a stalker, Lee had once said. The memory made her grin to herself, though she avoided laughing out loud, lest she run the risk of drawing further ire from the BBC photographers beside her.
As the players made their way to the locker room for the halftime rest and pep-talk, Hannah sat down in a plastic fold-up chair. To be a fly on the wall for a Manager John, FA Cup final pep talk, she wrote, ask Lee for exclusive. Peter, who had been diligently taking notes on the computer beside her, handed her a bottle of water from the cooler at their feet. She accepted it with a quiet thanks. They hadn't been on the best of terms since he'd published his interview with Cteve, but she found it remarkably difficult to stay angry with him. He was like her screw-up older brother – riddled with poor decision-making skills, sure, but still her family. Besides, they were in the press box of Wembley freaking stadium covering the Swoodilypooper's second FA Cup final. Who could hold a grudge on a day like today?
As though sensing her thoughts, Peter sat back in his own chair, looking out at the pitch below them. "Hell of a thing, isn't it?"
"It is," Hannah replied, nodding.
"They really could win this, you know…" Peter said, as though the idea was just now occurring to him.
"Of course they could! Honestly, Peter, have a little faith."
He smiled at her wryly. "I guess we can't all be the world's most loyal and devoted fan."
"That's true," she replied, grinning, "I'd have to give up my plaque if you were."
Hannah wasn't actually kidding. For her birthday last year, the team had banded together to get her a plaque with those exact words engraved on it. It had been Lee and OJ's idea, obviously. How they could manage to embarrass and make her feel enormously loved at the same time was beyond her.
"Hey, I heard about your job offer from The Times, by the way," Peter said. Hannah nearly choked on her water.
"How?" she demanded. The sports editor from The Times had emailed her only yesterday to request a meeting. It wasn't even an official offer, it was just a 'conversation' about the 'potential' of a position. "I've only told my dad about it so far!"
"Oh, you know me, I've got my –"
"Sources, yeah yeah, so I've heard. Know what? I call bullshit this time. You hacked into my emails, didn't you?"
"Hannah," Peter said placating, "'hacked' makes it sound so hostile. I may have happened upon your emails while you were away from your desk, and an email from the Chief Sports Editor of one of the country's biggest newspapers may have caught my eye…" Hannah backhanded him hard in the arm, which only made him laugh.
"You're unbelievable," she snapped. "I should bloody report you."
"Look, I'm not going to go writing an exposé or anything, I just wanted to ask you about it…"
"I'm not going to take it," she said firmly.
"Not even the meeting?" he pressed.
Hannah hesitated. He seemed to take her silence as a confirmation and let out an indignant huff. "After everything we've given you, you're going to abandon us for the big leagues?"
"I just said I'm not going to take it!"
Peter eyed her suspiciously, but stopped pushing. Hannah sighed. She really didn't have any intention of taking a new job, but it seemed rude to not even meet with the man, especially when there wasn't even an official offer on the table. All he'd said is that he wanted to have a conversation with her. Having contact with major sports editors was valuable, and shouldn't be shunned just because he might offer her a job she didn't have any plan of accepting. She would take the meeting; that didn't mean anything would come of it.
"Look," Hannah began, "don't mention this to –" she was cut off by a loud cheer from the stands. She looked down and saw the boys flooding back onto the pitch. What she had to say to Peter could wait.
They had work to do.
The whole match, from the first minute to the 120th, felt like it had been played at 200% the usual match speed. There had been no gentle ebb and flow. There were no chances to regroup and plan the next attack. All of it was a constant, furious push and pull, like a never-ending tug of war, with neither side gaining ground. Leeroy Williamson had never known this level of exhaustion.
"I know it's been a difficult match, boys," Manager John said as they filed back into the locker room. "Grab some water. Rest for a bit."
Lee thought it was something of an understatement to say it had been a difficult match. 'Difficult' didn't quite do justice to the situation. He felt as though he had been voluntarily slamming himself against a brick wall for two hours. His whole body was aching, his mind had almost completely shut down, and that wasn't even the worst of it. The worst of it was that they still weren't done.
Lee was so dead tired that he could barely think, but that much had sunk in. It was generally accepted in football that penalties were a terrible way to end a match. They discounted the last 120 minutes of regular and extra time play. They threw out any extenuating circumstances, or flow of the match. Penalties didn't care if one team had 80% of the possession all match; they didn't care if the equalizing goal had been an unlucky own-goal of a defender's shin. Lee understood why everyone hated them, but he disagreed. Penalties were a clean slate: nothing else that had happened that evening mattered. All that mattered now were the two men facing off against each other, and the ball in between them. It was pure and simple. Lee loved penalties. He just wished the stakes weren't so high.
He sat heavily on one of the empty benches and gulped half a bottle of water in one go. When he set the bottle back down, he found Manager John sitting beside him on the bench. He looked less haggard than Lee had seen him all week. His eyes were blazing with determination as he clapped Lee hard on the shoulder.
"You're our best penalty scorer."
"Yes, coach." Lee nodded. He already knew that.
In general, Lee went largely unnoticed in terms of his sporting ability; he was a solid mid-fielder and an average centre-back. He could pass quite well, and he occasionally scored. He was a supporting team member at best. Manager John rarely had cause to pull him aside for a tactical discussion – as he frequently did with the Johns – but he also never had to discipline him in the way he did with Cteve. Lee flew under the radar among most of his teammates. He liked it that way. The only thing he really shone at were penalty kicks.
"I'll bring it home, coach," Lee continued when Manager John didn't respond.
His coach nodded, though he didn't look overly convinced. He doesn't think we can win, Lee realized. Maybe he was right, but Lee would do his best to prove him wrong. Manager John sat quietly on the bench for an awkward beat. Then, without saying another word to Lee, he stood up and quickly ended up in conversation with Lucas.
Lee lay back on the bench, trying to relax. He wished Hannah were here. She was in the stadium, of course; up in the jam-packed press box with Peter and Glenn, taking as many photographs as her various cameras could manage, and jotting down notes for the article write-up. She was watching, but she wasn't here.
He looked over at the Johns, sitting together on one of the benches, and his heart went out to the pair of them. Resting together on the bench, they seemed to have abandoned any pretense of physical distance between them. Bald John was curled into John's chest, and John was resting his head on Bald John's back. They were like cats, curled up around each other. Meanwhile, everyone else had collapsed all around the locker room. Ginger and Fitz were lying on the floor a few feet away. It didn't look as though they even had enough energy to lift their water bottles to their lips. No one was paying the Johns the least bit of attention.
Lee felt a burst of something approximating pride. He felt enormously lucky to have ended up on a team with such decent men.
"Alright boys," Manager John's voice called out to them a few minutes later. "It's time."
John would be fifth to take a penalty shot for Swindon. He stood in the short line at the top of the box, between Parry Parry and Beef Stock. His legs felt numb, his head was swimming, and his heart was pounding in his throat. The whole of the last two hours had been a prolonged adrenaline high, but he could feel the exhaustion clawing at the back of his eyelids now. He jumped a few times on the spot to try and orient himself with the situation and the people surrounding him. It was no good: he was completely and utterly spent. He was also a terrible penalty-taker. It should be Bald John up here, not me. Whatever the reason, Manager John had selected John to take the shot instead. His husband couldn't help him now. Bald John was trapped on the bench with most of the other Swoodilypoopers, forced to watch as only a handful of men decided the whole team's fate. The only thing worse than taking one of the penalty shots was sitting on the bench watching other people take the penalty shots.
The whistle blew, and Lampard stepped up to take the first shot. It was over in seconds with a swift, hard kick into the left side of the net. Fat Lucas barely had time to register the attack before Chelsea was up 1-nil.
A sinking feeling in the pit of John's stomach, which had been building all evening, grew in strength. After all this, all the endless practice, the grueling run up, and the longest match he had ever played. After all of it, they could still lose.
The whistle blew again and Lee stepped forward this time. Dimly, John heard his teammates shouting encouragement from the benches. For his part, John's throat was too dry to utter a word. Lee didn't hesitate; he simply ran up and took a clean, simple shot down the middle. He scored. John felt a rush of temporary relief, before his nerves seized up again as Malouda stepped forward for Chelsea.
Malouda's shot was sent low to the bottom-left corner of the net. John watched, as though in slow motion, as Fat Lucas dove in the same direction. His fingers brushed the ball, and John nearly cried out for joy. But the force of Malouda's kick was too strong, and the ball careened over to top of Lucas' fingers and into the goal. Disappointment kicked John hard in the stomach.
Voluptuous stepped up next, cool and collected. As though this was no more strenuous than a casual afternoon practice, he sauntered up and hammered the ball past Cech. This time, John did manage to cheer, though his voice sounded strained and dry, even to his own ears.
Maybe we can, a hopeful voice said doggedly in the back of his mind. Maybe there's just a chance. Within minutes Alex had scored one more for Chelsea, and Lallana had done the same for Swindon.
Anelka strode up to take the fourth penalty for Chelsea. His shot was hard, and extremely powerful, but he aimed too far left. The ball hit the left post with an almighty thud, and ricocheted harmlessly out of bounds. John heard a shriek of delight from the benches that could only have come from Manager John. Anelka had really missed, then. John wasn't so exhausted that'd he'd started hallucinating. That was good to know, at least.
Next came Parry Parry. John clasped a reassuring hand on Parry's shoulder as he stepped forward. Their youngest Swoodilypooper shook violently with nerves as he walked up to the penalty line. He didn't look nearly as imposing as the Chelsea players, but John knew better. The boy had some heart to him. Sure enough, though he stumbled slightly on his run up the ball, he managed to chip his shot over the right should of Cech and into the goal.
"He's a platypus!" Manager John was screaming from the sidelines as Parry, still shaking, returned to John's side. John gave him a one-armed hug in congratulations for the successful penalty.
"Is he saying I'm a platypus?" Parry asked surreptitiously to John.
John grinned in spite of his nerves. "I think so, yeah."
"Why? What does that even mean?" Parry asked, bemused.
"I have no clue, mate. Could be worse, though. You could be called John, and then what would we do?"
Parry laughed. John was grateful for the momentary distraction, if only because he thought he might throw up as he watched Zhirkov prepare his shot. If Fat Lucas stopped this, it was all over.
The ball hit the cross-bar with such force that the whole goal shuddered, but it made no difference. The ball itself bounced high over the back of the net and out of bounds. Chelsea had lost 3-4. This meant that Swindon Town had won. As Lucas began running towards them, his eyes blazing with joy, the truth began to settle in. They'd won. On penalties. John watched Lallana, Lee, and Voluptuous lift Lucas onto their shoulders in celebration, and it all suddenly became real. He, Parry, and Beef Stock began sprinting towards the rest of them, whooping in celebration. John caught up to Lee and Fitz, and hugged them both, one in each arm. There was a loud bang from somewhere above them, and confetti began raining down onto the pitch. John looked up at the red and white rain. He laughed.
The match hadn't been perfect, and their win wasn't impressive or fancy, but it was still one for the history books. Wembley stadium was in such an uproar of noise that John could barely think straight through the adrenaline, the endorphins, and the sensory overload. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, Bald John was there too. Grey eyes alight with the same joy, he marched right up to John and didn't hesitate. There, in the middle of Wembley stadium, he picked John up in his arms and kissed him with wild, unrestrained abandon.
John could hear the laughs and teases from his teammates, but there was nothing in the world he cared less about. He allowed his passion to get the better of him, and drowned himself in Bald John's kiss. When they finally pulled apart, Bald John let out a breathless laugh.
"You have confetti in your hair," he said, brushing his fingers through the short hairs at the back of John's neck.
"Listen, we'll catch you up!" Bald John called to the rest of the team as they poured off the bus in the County Ground parking lot. "OJ, here, just needs to grab his jacket. We'll meet you at the Giraffe."
"Oi!" Cteve called to their backs, "no shagging in the shower, you hear? We all still have to use them!"
The team laughed raucously. Many of them had already managed to reach low levels of intoxication while still on the ride home from London. Even Other John let out a quiet chuckle, his hand warm in Bald John's.
"Of course not," he muttered for Bald John's ear only. "That would be against the rules."
He laughed and tightened his grip on Other John's hand. The sounds of their teammates faded in the distance as they disappeared down the hill towards the pub. Bald John could breathe a little easier in the silent night air. It went without saying that he loved his team, but they could be a little exhausting, and it had been a very long evening. Give him some peace, quiet, and Other John's company. That was all he needed.
The door to the player's entrance was locked when John tried to push on it. "It's locked," he said redundantly.
Bald John grinned at him. "Of course it is. Here," he produced his keys from the pocket of his jeans and unlocked the door.
"Manager John gave you a key to the stadium?" John asked in awe. Bald John winked at him, grinning at the expression of jealousy on his husband's face.
"You're cute when you're outraged. Go on."
Bald John followed his husband into the empty locker rooms. Some of the lights were on a sensor, and flickered to life as they walked inside. He grinned around the room. It was certainly in sharp contrast to the majesty of Wembley stadium. Everything in the County Ground felt vaguely damp and smelt of moldy carpet. Still, it was home.
Other John wasted no time in tracking down his jacket, which he'd left strewn across one of the benches at the end of practice last week. He slipped into the worn, black cotton jacket and zipped it up.
"Lovely," he said, adjusting the coat around his shoulders. Other John hadn't stopped grinning for a moment since they'd won the cup three hours ago. "Shall we go meet the others?"
Bald John sauntered forward, wrapped an arm around John's waist, and pulled him in for a slow, languid kiss. "Are you in a rush, Green?"
Other John, a little flushed, shook his head dumbly.
"Wonderful," Bald John replied. "Follow me." He dropped his arm from Other John's waist, but didn't let go of his hand, as he led his husband across the locker room, through the tunnel, and back outside.
The pitch looked beautiful in the dark, lit only by the moon and a smattering of stars. Other John stepped forward, walking aimlessly across the grass. Bald John followed alongside, unwilling to part their hands.
"It's a beautiful night," Other John said quietly.
Bald John hummed in agreement.
For a while, they said nothing at all, just continued their slow meandering of the pitch's perimeter.
"I thought Manager John was crazy when I first met him, you know?"
"That's fair enough," Bald John answered. "The man is certainly a bit eccentric."
"Sure," John agreed with a shrug, "but I mean, I thought he was properly nuts. There he was talking about the Premier League, and all these great ambitions he had for the club, while I was just thinking we'd be lucky to remain in the professional league at all. That was before I met you, of course," he amended.
Bald John grinned at this. "Really? On my merit alone you were convinced we'd make it to the Premiership?"
John let out a warm laugh. "Not even close, no. But I was convinced that we might stand a chance at winning a match. Ever."
"You sure do know how to flatter a man," Bald John replied dryly.
Other John chuckled, and leaned over to kiss him placatingly on the cheek. They walked behind the goalposts, and Bald John imagined the glistening raindrops on the fabric were fairy lights. The only sounds were the soft ruffling of their shoes upon the damp grass, and the occasional whirr of a generator from somewhere in the stands. Finally, they arrived back at the mouth of the tunnel. A light wind had picked up, and Bald John let out an involuntary shudder. It might have been May, but they were still in England, and he couldn't stand the cold.
"Shall we go?" Other John asked.
Bald John nodded through his chattering teeth, but stopped once more at the edge of the pitch to admire the view. The white chalk lines were only just visible in the half-light of the moon. "I really love this place."
"Yeah," Other John agreed, "and I'll love it just as much when summer training starts next week, and we're running drills across this field from dawn 'till dusk. In the meantime, I think we've earned a drink, don't you?" His husband tugged lightly on his hand, urging him towards the exit.
Bald John grinned and reached up to run a hand through Other John's hair. "Come on," he said, at length. "Let's get to the pub before the rest of them drink the place dry."
AN: I don't want to cheapen the ending with a final word from me, but I do have one last thing to say.
I've never written anything this long in my life, and I'm incredibly proud of it. So much of that is down to all of you, for reading and commenting as much as you did. So thank you – so much – for all of your love and support. It's really meant a great deal to me.