Training with the first team is even harder than the coach made it sound back in the changing room. Toby is dripping with sweat by the time that the afternoon training session is finally wrapped up. Toby stands there, legs bent and weight on his knees as he pants for breath. The other players from the Academy are in similar shape, even Scooby. They’re all grinning though and when Toby catches Scooby’s eye he starts to laugh. Pretty soon all four of them are laughing together, in between big gulps for air. Finally Toby can’t hold himself up any more and he collapses on the ground, flopping on to his back and staring up at the sky. He hears several other thumps nearby and a bit of shuffling as the other three boys do the same. He leans his head back and looks at them all upside down. They start to laugh again.
“I’m glad to see that you’re having fun,” the coach says.
He looms over them, casting a shadow across their faces and they try to fight down their laughter. He looks stern for a moment, frowning at them all, but then he begins to smile.
“You should be having fun and enjoying this moment.” He says. He crouches down and sits on the grass with a groan. The boys all sit up and look at him. “You’re all having the chance of a lifetime, one that doesn’t come along that often at all. You’ve all been chosen to be here and you should be proud, soaking in the experience. But I need you to take this seriously as well. I was proud of you all today. You completely focused on the training and didn’t let yourselves get distracted. You should show everyone, the other academy members and the first team players, that you belong right here amongst them. And that’s the thing I need you to remember.”
He stops smiling for a moment and looks at them. He’s somber and stern, looking them right in the eye. Toby fights back the urge to look away and stares right back. The coach stares down the other three, Scooby just smiles. Eventually he nods and sits back a little.
“This is a very important opportunity, for all of you,” he says solemnly, “There is a very real probability that you might get to play. There have been a lot of match bans for players and a lot of injuries that have taken out more players than normal from our first team and from our substitutes. We’re turning to you boys in the hopes that you might be the key to us winning. I want you all to take this very seriously. The replay is going to be televised. Of course it is, it’s Old Trafford. And I know, from experience, exactly how scary that can be. It’s going to put additional pressure on you, knowing that all of those eyes are going to be watching.”
Ricardo and Jonathan share worried glances. Toby has to duck his head to hide his grin. Clearly they hadn’t even thought about the cameras at all. He glances at Scooby who’s just nodding. He’s been there, he knows what it’s like so at least some of the pressure is off there. Toby is glad that his tips were able to help his best friend and he finds himself smiling. Scooby catches his eye and winks.
“I don’t want you to think about that,” The coach says quickly, catching the worried expressions on the faces of two of the boys. “I want you to completely forget about everything but the game. You need to give your best performance, play the match of your career. Forget you’re in Old Trafford, forget you’re playing against Manchester United. Forget about the crowd there, cheering and shouting, forget about the cameras and the millions of people watching at home. Zone them all out so that you can give it your best. It’s just you and the ball, playing football like you love. It’s just like any other game, important yes, but not life and death. Unless that’s how you treat every match you’re in, in which case, go ahead and treat it like that.”
The boys all laugh and relax a little. They lay back in the grass and listen to their coach as he continues to speak. He’s smiling a little now, the stern and serious part of his talk almost over.
“It’s just you, the ball and each other,” the coach says kindly, “Just like at training. Don’t look at the cameras either, and for God’s sake don’t pull a face at them. Keep your eyes on the ball. And for the love of God don’t get starstruck and go all useless!”
The boys laugh and slowly climb to their feet. Ricardo and Jonathan help the coach to his feet and they head off to the changing rooms, talking about the upcoming match. Scooby holds out a hand to Toby and hauls his friend to his feet. They walk to the changing rooms in silence.
As Toby showers he thinks about the speech that their coach has given them. It’s similar to him somehow, familiar in the way that some places can be when you’ve only been there drunk and finally go there sober. He knows the message that the coach is trying to say but can’t figure out how. Then it clicks, like a light bulb switching on. It’s the same thing that Gavin was teaching at the acting class. Playing football, at Old Trafford, is like acting. He has to throw himself in to the role, completely submerse himself and act as if that is his entire being. In the case of the replay, the role is that of a true sportsman. He isn’t just pretending to be a footballer, which it feels like he was slightly until now. He needs to completely be a footballer. The game has to be all that he eats, drinks, thinks and sleeps. It needs to be a part of him, part of his very being. He needs to treat the game like it’s a matter of life and death, like every game is a matter of life and death. Toby glances at Scooby and realises that’s how his best friend sees every game. He needs to see football the way that Scooby sees it. Toby needs to play football, treat football, the same way that he used to, back when football was his entire world. He smiles as he remembers the feeling. He has to hang on to it.
Then he remembers what else the coach said about getting starstruck. He realises, right then, that he’s going to get to see Rooney, in the flesh. He could actually have the chance to stand right in front of him, speak to him. The exact same man that he keeps auditioning to be, that he’s focused on becoming for a film. Toby pauses as he washes his hair, hands and head covered in suds. He stares at the tiled wall as a thought hits him. What if he actually gets to be on the pitch with Rooney? What if he tackles the other man, his hero? What if he gets past Rooney and manages to make it to goal? Toby whimpers slightly as he realises the enormity of what he’s involved with. He might have the chance to play football against the legend himself.
“Oh shit!” Toby screeches as the bubbles run down his face and hit his eyes.
He shoves his head under the water and tries to rinse away the shampoo. For the time being all thoughts of Rooney and professional football are gone as he tries to wash away the stinging in his eyes and nose. Scooby’s laughing at him from the next cubicle.
For Toby it feels like no time before the day of the rematch arrives. Training has gone by in a blur, he’s barely been able to spend any time with his house mates, arriving home late and exhausted, shovelling down a plate of whatever Carrie or Fiona gives him before trudging off to shower and then go to bed. He’s spent the last week or so finding piles of neatly folded clean clothes on his bed every time that he comes home. Breakfast keeps sitting in the oven, waiting for him every morning. Carrie keeps meeting him at the door just before he leaves for training to shove lunch in to his hands. The day of the match, before he leaves to get the team bus over to Old Trafford, all of his house mates appear to give him hugs and wish him luck. John even makes him write down the time of kick off and the channel it will be on. The four of them wave him off as he climbs up the steps to of the coach. He’s smiling the entire way to the pitch.
In the changing room, moments before Skelmerage are due to go on to the pitch and start warming up he gets texts from his house mates and his dad. They’re all watching, waiting to see him on TV. He’s grinning as he walks out and completely blocks out the sounds of the crowds booing Skelmerage.
The match passes by in a blur. The home crowd boo a lot of the time, unless one of their own players gets hold of the ball and makes a rush at goal. That’s when the Skelmerage supporters, fewer in number though they are, start to boo. Everyone saw the last game, no one was happy with the outcome. Toby spots the bright yellow jackets of security and police patrolling the stands, keeping the peace between the two increasingly hostile groups of fans.
On the pitch though there’s no such safety barrier. The rematch is even more violent than the first match. There are whistles blown time and time again as yellow cards are flashed, penalties are taken and free kicks are argued over. The crowd is an angry roar in the background. Most of the Skelmerage players, and the Manchester United players, have some blood on them. They’re dirty, sweaty, covered in grass and mud. By the time that full time rolls around it’s still nil-nil. All the substitutions have been made, Ricardo and Jonathan are both on the pitch, playing hard alongside Scooby. Scooby has been playing his heart out, even better than last time. He was put on within seconds of the second half starting. Two of the players have been sent off, they’re sitting near the coach, scowling at the pitch. No more players can be sent on, their limit is reached and the seconds are ticking away until the end of the match and the last whistle. Toby sits and watches.
“We have 30 minutes of extra time,” the guy on the loud speaker says.
Toby’s eyebrows raise and his eyes widen. He glances over at one of the more experienced players who took a seat beside him. The guy came off during the first half, a weak ankle having been twisted too far during a pivot for the ball. He’s been whispering commentary to Toby for most of the match, telling him small tricks that the other players are doing.
He claps Toby on the back, “You better go and get warmed up.”
“Why?” Toby says.
“If one of our midfielders gets injured you’re up. You want to be ready. With this match you just know it’s going to happen sooner or later.”
Toby looks at Bill, trying to figure out if the older man is messing with him. He’s just watching the game though, staring intently at the ball being smacked back and forth across the pitch. Toby glances over at the coach who’s staring at him. From the way that the guy is frowning Toby figures that he’s probably been looking at him for a while. Then the coach makes the hand signal, telling him to get warmed up. Toby glances at Bill and sees him smirking and watching him out of the corner of his eye.
“Told you so,” Bill murmurs, almost too quietly to hear.
Toby rolls his eyes and goes to warm up. He’s smiling the entire time. As he jogs up and down the lines he watches the match. As he stretches he watches the match. As he bounces a ball around a few times he watches the match. And then a mid-fielder goes down. A Manchester United player ploughs in to his feet, studs slamming in to ankles. The Skelmerage player falls forward, tumbling in the air and crashing to the ground. He doesn’t move, his face is filled with pain and he’s gasping for breath. The Manchester supporters start booing, convinced that he’s faking it. The ref and the player responsible are arguing with each other nearby and the first aiders rush over. Scooby and Ricardo are hovering nearby, shooting dirty looks at the guilty player and glancing over to Toby.
“Arnold!” the coach shouts, “Get ready to go on!”
Toby nods and heads over to the tunnel, eyes fixed on the knot of people near the middle of the pitch. The mid-fielder is stretchered off, groaning in pain as he passes Toby and Toby can’t help but feel a little sorry for him. That was a hard tackle. Then his name is called out by the commentator and the coach is next to him.
“You’re on!” the coach says.
Toby jogs on to the pitch and stares around him in awe. The whistle goes though before he can look around any more. The match has started again and he needs to focus.
There’s ten minutes left of the game. Toby’s managed to touch the ball a couple of times but he’s not gotten close to any of the players really. Scooby’s too good, he gets everywhere and Toby spends most of his time racing up and down the pitch, just trying to be there in case. Most of the time he’s just been passing the ball from one of his team mates to another. He’s done no dribbling, no tackling and not even had the chance to shoot at goal. But his heart is racing and he still can’t believe he’s at Old Trafford, playing in a match against Manchester United. The ball goes out across the back line and the flag goes up. It’s at the Skelmerage end of the pitch, a corner kick for Manchester. One of the players heads over to take it, in no particular rush as he clearly uses the opportunity to have a quick breather. Toby heads in to the box, surrounded by other players as they jostle each other for position. Then he catches sight of him, Wayne Rooney.
Toby tries desperately to see him as just another player on the opposite team. He tries to ignore the all too recognisable face, the familiar build clad in red. But his mind keeps going back to the fact that he is playing football right beside the subject of his audition. This is the very man who Toby is going to be pretending to be during the football scenes and might actually get to be for the entire film. It’s heady and incredible and Toby is startled as the whistle blows and the crowd start to cheer.
The ball soars up in the air and begins to fall. It’s so close to Toby, so close to Rooney. Toby jumps up in to the air as high as he can. He wants to get it before Rooney does, he needs to get it before Rooney does. The entire world begins to go in slow motion as the ball gets closer and closer. Each movement, each sound gets slower and slower.
Toby’s head reaches the ball. It’s his first proper touch. His first chance to touch the ball and make a difference. All the heading practice with Scooby is going to pay off. He beats Rooney to the ball, jumping higher than him. His head hits the ball, smacking it out of Rooney’s reach. It’s heading towards the far post. Toby watches it as he lands. The crowd are holding their breath. The players are holding their breath. They all think it’s going to hit the post and go out across the back lines again. It’ll just be another corner. But the ball is spinning. Toby spots it as it hits the post. The ball rebounds, not going the way it was supposed to. It hits the inside of the post and goes in to the goal, past the line, past the keeper. The Skelmerage keeper stands there, watching the ball slack jawed. It’s an own goal.
The world bursts in to movement and sound again. The Manchester team celebrate, the fans are celebrating. The Skelmerage players groan, throwing their heads back. The fans start to boo. No one is looking at Toby. He drops to the ground and stares at the grass. The Manchester United players celebrate, grabbing each other and jumping. They move around him like he’s not even there. The Skelmerage players move out of the way, sliding past the celebrating players, not even glancing at Toby or touching him. The ref is blowing his whistle, trying to get the game going again. Toby just kneels there, in the grass. His first goal in professional football was an own goal.
Manchester United are 1-0 and it’s all surely through for both teams. But they have to play the last ten minutes. The Skelmerage players try even harder, making attack after attack on the Manchester goal posts. But they keep getting repelled. Manchester are barely making any more attempts on goal. They’re just playing with the other team. Toby races around the pitch, determined to make up for his mistake. But the other players ignore his shouts, the Manchester players don’t even bother to guard him. He doesn’t get to touch the football at all.
When the final whistle blows and the game is over Toby heads straight for the changing rooms. He doesn’t want to have to deal with it any more. The crowd boos as he leaves the pitch and he collapses on a bench in the visitor’s changing room. He can hear the announcement already going. Manchester United are going through to the next round. Skelmerage FC are out entirely. All because of one goal. Toby’s goal. The own goal.
Toby leans forwards and puts his head in his hands.