CHAPTER: 12345, 6789101112131415161718192021222324252627EPILOGUE

Three Years Earlier

Skelmerage Football Club is a small club. It’s lower league and quite possibly one of the smallest clubs in the entire league. It has a small grandstand, barely a grandstand at all, that can accommodate just up to 1,000 fans, both visitors and home fans alike. The club is so small that there was never much chance of the stands being completely filled. It does have a claim to fame though. It’s the highest ranking new town football club in the UK, even if it is only the fourth division.

As a result of this, it has a training academy for young and upcoming football stars that show a lot of potential. The changing rooms for the academy members are far less impressive than the main changing rooms for the Skelmerage players. The academy changing rooms are no bigger than a living room in a large house. There are no lockers and only a few hooks to hang the kits. It’s more school changing rooms than professional football academy.

Right now it’s packed with 20 or so young boys, all in their late teens and chattering excitedly amongst themselves. They’re filled with excitement and they’re looking around the changing rooms like they’re at Wembley Stadium. As the coach walks in and they all fall silent. They look at him, eager faces and shining eyes. They’re all standing and most of them tower over the coach. They shift amongst themselves as the coach looks them all up and down, weighing them up.

“Good morning gentlemen,” he says, his voice perfectly pitched to be heard by everyone. “Welcome to Skelmerage FC. We’re all very happy to have you here.”

He looks around, smiling widely. Some of the boys smile back. Then the smile suddenly drops away and he looks at them seriously.

“Now there’s something that you need to remember before we begin,” he says firmly, “For every one of you, for every seat that each and every one of you currently occupy there were 300 rejects. You should give yourselves a pat on the back for coming so far compared to everyone else.”

He pauses and the boys start to smile at each other. There’s a touch of smugness in the room now, confidence that’s almost too cocky.

“But before you get too pleased with yourselves!” he says loudly, surprising the boys and making them fall silent again, “You need to remember one more thing. Only three of you will go on to make a career out of playing football. Of those three, only one of you will end up playing in the premiership. The rest of you will either go on to earn a modest income as support staff and some of you will leave the industry all together. I’m am not making these numbers up. These are real statistics and simple facts that are available all over the internet for you to see for yourselves. With this is mind I want to ask you something, warn you if you will. If your heart isn’t in playing football and giving it your all, I suggest that you leave now and give your place to someone more determined.”

The coach smiles and looks at them all. Its a slightly vicious smile, too full of teeth and menace to be anything but taunting. He looks at the door, knowing that none of them want to leave. The room sits in silence, the boys looking at each other. Some twist and turn, looking at all of the boys around them. They’re waiting for others to make the move, to leave. Toby is doing exactly the same thing. He looks at most of the boys nearby, catches the eye of the young man beside him who shrugs. He smiles, shakes his head and goes back to fiddling with the shin pad that’s in his grasp.

The silence continues. The boys start to shift, uncomfortably. It can’t have been more than a few seconds but Toby feels like it’s longer. There’s a small voice niggling in the back of his mind, whispering that he shouldn’t be there, that he doesn’t want it like everyone else does. He tries to ignore it, but it keeps getting louder and louder. His hands start to shake and he drops the shin pad. It clatters to the floor, almost too loud in the silence.

People jump and turn to look at him. Toby feels his face heat up. The coach’s smile turns a little kinder. He’s used to the weight of the silence, the way it can pull at the young boys in front of them and play with their minds. He’s been doing this talk for long enough that he knows no one will actually be leaving. After all, the trial process is rigorous and exhausting. None of them would willingly go through the process only to turn around and back out afterwards. Who would want to go through the process if they didn’t really want to be a part of the academy.

“So,” he calls out, clapping his hands together. “I take it we’re all committed then?!”

The boys break into grins and a few chuckles can be heard. There’s a sense of relief that fills the room. The silence returns as the coach holds up a hand but it’s a lighter silence, one no longer filled with tension and apprehension.

“Ok, let me tell you the regime you’re going to be expected to stick to here” the coach says. He starts pacing back and forth across the small gap in front of the boys “We start training everyday at 8:30am and we finish at 6pm. In between these times I am your god. You will do exactly as I ask you to, when I ask you to. You do not question my directions and you do not argue with me. If you have a problem with that, or with any orders I give, you will come and you will speak to me directly. You will not shout out your question in front of the other academy members. Am I understood?”

A low murmur of agreement fills the room.

“When I ask a question I expect you to answer loudly and clearly with ‘yes coach,” he says. “Am I understood?”

“Yes Coach!” the boys say as one.

The coach grins.

“Excellent,” he says, “Now if you feel that I haven’t resolved your problem or we can’t come to a solution together we will escalate the problem. It will be brought to the attention of our head coach. If the problem is still unresolved then we take the issue even further and we talk to Terry. Whatever Terry says on the matter is final. There will be no arguments and no appeal. If you don’t agree with Terry’s decision then I suggest that you walk away. That is all.”

The boys are nodding amongst themselves. They know these sorts of rules, they understand them. All of them are barely out of senior school, they’ve barely left the world of education behind and the rules are exactly what they’re used to having in place and following. They know how to respond, how to handle these types of rules. They get told what to do and they do it, no questions, no argument.

None of them plan to argue though, they all want to follow orders and do as they’re told. Toby notices that most of the boys around him are shifting restlessly. He can feel that same energy rising up in him, filling his entire body up with an energy that won’t go away, that wants to make his body run and race. They all just want to get out on the pitch and play. They have all had enough of talking and explanations, now they want to get out on to the field and see what everyone else is made of. They all want that top dog position, the one with the greatest chance of getting into premier league football. More importantly they all want to make their mark on the coach and show everyone else what they’re made of. There’s a hierarchy amongst the players, they all know it. They respond to and respect the best player and the sooner they know who that is then the better they can create their own small social structure around him.

“Ok,” the coach says as the chatter dies down again, “Let’s get out there and do some warm ups. Then we’ll pick teams and start a few matches. Remember, today is about showing us what you’re made of. We’ll be looking for weaknesses as well as strengths, we’re trying to improve everyone’s game here. There is no serious competition today, just a view of your skills for those of the academy staff who were unable to view the trials. Now, let’s get out and there and warm up!”

The boys slowly jog from the changing rooms, the teeth of their boots clattering on the tile floor. It sounds like a hundred small horses trotting down the road as they all make their way out of the changing rooms and on to the field. Within moments the leaders of the group are beginning their laps around the pitch.

Toby pants and leans his hands against his knees. The process is almost exhausting and he’s glad that it’s almost over. He’s played a lot of football, but this session is threatening to kill him. He knows why he’s so tired and sore. Everyone’s trying to show off, to push themselves and make the best impression on the academy staff. Toby has been doing it himself. Even now he can see the academy staff, in their bright yellow jackets, wandering amongst the cooling down players, clipboards and pen in their hands, making notes as they look at each player. He spots one of the team captains in his red bib, helping one of the other players stretch out his hamstring. That tendon has been giving the player grief throughout training, it has almost sent him tumbling to the floor and out of the academy a couple of times throughout the day.

The captain looks up and catches Toby’s eye. He grins, waves and turns back to the player he’s helping. Toby continues to stretch and tries to remember the captain’s name. He searches and searches, playing back memories of the day, trying to remember if he had heard anyone shout to him. Toby had been on the opposing team, but even he had been forced to admire the boy’s skill. He was smart with the ball, clearly knew when to pass and when to dribble, when to tackle and when to back off. The guy was quick, whipping around the pitch with apparently no trouble. Most importantly he seemed to naturally fall in to the role of team captain, spurring his men on and encouraging them with every breath. He spoke up for the boys on his team, asked for clarification on orders when they were unclear and even partitioned to the ref for a reconsideration of a yellow card that had been handed out.

Scooby, his name is Scooby, Toby remembers. One of the boys had called it out while asking for a pass but Scooby hadn’t sent the ball over. He’d seen what the other boy hadn’t after all, he had spotted the two players closing in on either side of the striker, who could be easily tackled and overwhelmed by sheer numbers. The boy had been annoyed at first, Toby remembered, but Scooby had smiled and explained and the boy had calmed down almost instantly. Scooby has been quick to make friends all day, even the academy staff were laughing and joking with him. He’d encouraged the players on his own team and even those of the other teams when they seemed to be flagging. Scooby seemed to think nothing of patting the other players on the back and praising their game. And he quite happily leapt in to the celebrations for goal, exuberantly grabbing their faces and kissing the scorer right on the mouth before stepping away and ruffling their hair. The other players had initially pushed him away but given up when they saw the captain doing it to everyone. It had made Toby laugh a lot.

“Ok boys,” the coach calls out as he walks to the centre of the pitch, “Bring it in, bring it in and take a knee,” the players all jog over and kneel in front of him, creating a circle. The coach spins in the middle and looks at them all. His smile is wide, “You’ve all done really well today lads, you should be proud of yourselves. But this was the easiest day you’ll have in the entire program. As of tomorrow expect to be completely exhausted and sore. We are trying to train you all for the big time, whether you make it or not. Which means we won’t be going gently. We will be pushing you harder than you’ve ever been pushed before. So go home, have a cold shower and a hot bath then get plenty of sleep. Don’t forget to eat a good healthy breakfast tomorrow morning and I’ll see you bright and early at 8:30am. Now go get showered and changed.”

The boys all break away and slowly walk towards the changing rooms. Toby walks alone, noticing that some of the boy have already created alliances of sorts, possibly even friendship. They’re walking in small groups of threes and fours, talking to each other and gesturing excitedly with their hands. They’re pushing and shoving each other playfully but everyone is too exhausted to do anything more playful.

Toby feels a figure coming up beside him and he looks over. It’s Scooby.

“I don’t know about you mate, but I’m knackered,” Scooby says. He sounds out of breath. “Brutal or what?”

“I know!” Toby cries, “I don’t think I’ve played so hard in my life.”

The two start to talk properly as they make their way in to the changing rooms and prepare to head home. Their conversation pauses in the shower, talking while naked just isn’t done amongst the players, no matter how comfortable with their bodies they might be. It’s just a matter of principle. By the time the two boys are dressed though, they’ve already gotten to know each other a little better, knowing where the other lives, which schools the other went to and whether either of them have a girlfriend. Toby does, Scooby doesn’t. They’re waiting outside and already consider each other a good friend with the potential to become best friends. Toby really has to ask the question that he’s always asking himself.

“So…” he says slowly, turning towards Scooby, “Why do you want to become a professional footballer?”

For a moment Scooby looks at Toby like the other boy is out of his mind. It’s an obvious question, one that doesn’t really need an answer. Scooby looks like he’s not sure whether to laugh at Toby or walk away because clearly he’s a lunatic for asking such a stupid question. Finally though he shrugs and grins.

“Why else?” Scooby says, “Because I love football! What about you?”

Toby hesitates for a moment, unsure of which answer would go down better; the honest one or the expected one that he almost believes himself now, having to say it so many times. He makes his choice.

“Because I love it too!” he cries.

Scooby cheers and holds his hand up in the air. Toby laughs and puts his up too. They high five and laugh together for a few moments. Other players walk past, heading to their own homes and they look at the two boys, shaking their heads and smiling.

“So you live near me don’t you mate?” Scooby says as they walk towards the bus stop, “Near Canterbury Street?”

“Yeah,” Toby says with a grin, “About three streets away, ten minute walk easy.”

“Fancy hanging out on Saturday?” Scooby asks. There’s a little fear in his eyes but it’s hidden behind a playful spark. “We could meet on Canterbury Street and then head in to town.”

“Sure,” Toby says, shrugging. He has nothing else to do, “What do you fancy doing?”

“We could go to the shopping centre?” Scooby suggests, taking a seat on the bus stop bench. He stretches his legs and arms out either side of him. Toby stays standing, “I think some of the shops are getting some new sports gear in, dead top of the line stuff. We can check that out, see if there’s anything worth getting.”

“Sounds cool,” Toby says, grinning now.

“And maybe when we’re done we could head over to the Oval Centre,” Scooby continues, a grin slowly forming on his face, “The girls like to hang out there. We could go and check them out.”

Toby laughs and agrees. His bus comes and he climbs on board and takes a seat. He waves goodbye to his new friend as the bus pulls away. Scooby absently waves back before turning his attention to his phone.

As the streets and houses pass by Toby sits back in his seat and sighs heavily. He really is exhausted. The day was hard, much harder than he had expected and all he wants to do is go to sleep now. It hadn’t been all bad though. He’d already made a new friend and was having the chance to go and do something none of his mates seemed interested in doing. It was unlikely that Toby would actually be able to buy anything but he liked looking and checking out girls was never a boring thing.

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