He’s on the train back to his house when the call from his Dad comes. Toby sighs, he’s not sure if he wants to deal with this right now. Then he catches sight of his workbook, sticking out of his bag and he realises that it’s not just something that he should do, it’s something that he needs to do. He answers the phone.
“Toby?” Rebecca asks, “Toby is that you?”
“Hey Becks,” Toby says fondly, smiling, “How are you doing ladybird?”
“I’m ok.” She says, sounding a little sad, “When are you coming home? I miss you.”
“I know,” Toby says, “I miss you too. But I’m not coming home for a while yet. Listen, can you put Dad on? I need to talk to him.”
“Sure thing,” Rebecca says happily, “He’s the one who called but said that I should speak to you first so I could actually talk to you before you get all grumpy and mad at Daddy.”
“Well that was very smart of you,” Toby says, “And I’m glad that you did. But I really need to speak to Dad so can you put him on?”
He can hear murmuring on the end of the line, a little bit of rattling as the phone’s headset is passed between hands. There’s a small note of anger forming in his stomach, resentment, betrayal and sheer fury twisting and turning together. He takes a deep breath, counting backwards from ten to calm himself.
“Toby?” Anthony says eventually. “Toby, is that you?”
Toby is about to rail at him, to yell at him but his dad sounds so hesitant, so nervous, so… not himself, that Toby pauses.
“Yeah it’s me,” he say, instead of yelling all the hurt words that he was going to. “Why did you put Rebecca on first? Were you trying to guilt me in to coming back?”
“No!” Anthony says quickly, “Of course not. She just misses you and I thought that you might like to talk to her before we spoke. You know she doesn’t like to use the phone without permission.”
“And she’s terrified of trying to call me and getting the wrong number,” Toby finishes. He can’t help but laugh, “She’s a mad one.”
“Yes,” Anthony says fondly, “She is indeed. But I love her anyway.”
“What did you want?” Toby asks, “It wasn’t to talk about Rebecca I know that much.”
“The match is on tonight,” Anthony says quickly. “I was wondering whether you might want to come over and watch it with me, like old times?”
“No,” Toby says, “Sorry but I can’t. I’m watching it at my new home, bonding time with house mates and all that.”
“Oh. Of course,” Anthony says, disappointment clear in his voice, “Stupid of me to ask really. Where are you living now anyway?”
“With an actress I met at an audition,” Toby says, “It’s a house in Manchester, a few other people live there too. Listen… I know you’re not happy about this but could you drop off some of my stuff to my new home? I’m just… sort of running out of clothes and right now all I’ve got in my football gear and a few shirts.”
Anthony doesn’t respond straight away. He’s still there though, Toby can hear him breathing.
“Ok,” Anthony says eventually, after what feels like hours of waiting, “I’ll trying to bring it round after the game. Rebecca will probably pack some stuff up if I ask her to. You don’t mind her going through your things right?”
“Nothing there I don’t want her to see,” Toby says, shrugging even though his dad can’t see him, “I don’t need much, just some extra clothes. I’ll come and get the rest at the weekend or something. You can meet my house mates properly then.”
“Yeah… sure,” Anthony says. He doesn’t sound convinced at all. “Well, I’ll see you later Toby.”
“See you later Dad,” Toby says. He’s about to hang up but stops, “Hey Dad?”
“Yeah?” Anthony asks.
“Thanks for this,” Toby says.
He hangs up.
The game is only a few minutes away from kick off when Toby reaches the house. He rushes to put his things away and then races back down to the living room. The others are all sat around, patting drums or strumming on a guitar. Marco is scribbling away in an over sized notebook, mug of tea balancing precariously on a knee.
“Hey guys,” Toby says, hovering in the doorway “You all good?”
“Toby!” Carrie cries out, “Come and sit next to me, there’s space.”
Toby smiles a little and makes his way across the living room. He snags the tv remote as he goes and settles himself beside Carrie. She’s instantly leaning against him and playing with his hair. Toby hesitates for a moment, wondering what the hell is going on and then he spots the braids in Marco and Fiona’s hair. Apparently it’s his turn.
“Hey, is it ok if I put the football on?” he asks eventually, watching the clock tick closer and closer to kick off, “I mean, I know you’re not in to football but my mate might be playing and I really want to watch.”
“Course mate,” John says, waving a hand at the TV. He doesn’t even look up from his guitar. “Knock yourself out,”
“Thanks,” Toby says, smiling widely.
“Which match is it?” Fiona asks as the commentary begins.
“It’s Skelmerage versus Manchester United,” Toby says. Fiona looks at him a little blankly. “Manchester United is the team that Rooney plays for, you know, the character I auditioned for? And Skelmerage is the football club that runs the Academy that I’m training with.”
“And your mate,” Marco says, “He’s in the Academy for Skelmerage too?”
“Yeah!” Toby says, “But he got called up to the reserves because of so many injuries and illnesses. There’s no guarantee that he’ll play tonight but if someone gets hurt he may get the chance to.”
“Is that normal?” Fiona asks, watching the commentary and diagrams come up, “An Academy player playing properly?”
“Not really,” Toby says, “I mean, compared to most of the premiership footballers we’re all just amateurs. But Scooby’s been called up to play in the main team so you know, chance in a life time.”
“He’s that good?” Marco asks, “An amateur playing on the main team, he’s got to be good right.”
“He’s amazing,” Toby says, eyes now fixed on the screen, “He loves playing football and being a premiership footballer is his dream. He’s not letting anything get in the way of that.”
“Well, I don’t know why anyone would want to play football for a living,” Carrie says. Then she glances at Toby, “Sorry Tobe, but I don’t. BUT he’s going for his dream and he’s reaching it so I’ll give him props for that. Good for him.”
“Which is why we’re all watching the match,” John says firmly. “We might not get sports but Toby’s mate is doing something he loves and going for his dream, just like us. Besides, Toby has to cheer on his club after all.”
“Thanks guys,” Toby says, grinning at them all. Then the whistle blows for kick off and his eyes flip back to the screen.
He watches closely. At some points he holds his breath. He starts to mutter ‘come on, come on’ when one of the Skelmerage players gets close to the goal. He can hear the others doing it too, once he explained which colour Skelmerage are playing in. They all groan when the goal is missed. Toby slumps back in his seat. They all sit and watch, cheering and shouting together. It’s more violent than other games he’s seen before. Players are tackling each other almost recklessly, almost like they’re more focused on doing damage than actually getting the ball off each other. Before half time one player from Skelmerage has already been sent off, a tackle gone wrong that almost broke one of the Man United player’s foot. The replay proved the player hadn’t even been aiming for the ball and the referee wasted no time in holding up a red card. By the time that the half time whistle blew Toby is almost completely exhausted.
“Is football always like that?”Carrie asks in amazement, “I can’t remember it being that fun to watch when I was a kid.”
“No,” Toby says, shaking his head. He’s still shocked by what he’s just seen, “Sometimes it can be really good, other times it can be really boring. It just depends on how the teams match up against each other.”
“This is funnier than I expected,” Fiona says, snuggling up beside Toby, “When it looked like the ball was about to go in and then the keeper jumped on it and was all like ‘you shall not pass!’ that was brilliant.”
“Yeah!” Carrie cries out, “And all those muscular legs and tight bums running around in short shorts are great to watch too.”
She winks at Fiona and they burst in to giggles. Marco catches Toby’s eyes and rolls his eyes. His notebook is sitting, forgotten on the floor. He’s slumped back in his seat, eyes flicking to the half time match review.
“I think we need beer for this next half,” John says, “My mouth’s getting a bit dry from all that shouting.”
Toby laughs, eyes fixed on the screen. John returns moments later with several bottles of beer. He hands them out and then darts back to his seat as the second half kicks off. It starts off slowly and Toby takes a little time to explain what’s actually happening and some of the rules to his house mates. He wants them to understand why he shouts at the referee or yells at the players rather than them just thinking that he’s a mad man. But the game quickly picks up and there’s no more time to explain. Two more players are sent off, one after the other. One is from Skelmerage, the other from Manchester United. More injuries go around and substitutes are bought on by both teams in droves. In the last fifteen minutes three of Skelmerage’s players go off, badly injured. Two limp off, helped by the first aiders but one has to be carried off on a stretcher. Carrie looks at them worriedly and Toby has to reassure her that it’ll be ok.
He’s so busy talking that he doesn’t hear the names of the substitutes. It’s only when he glances at the screen as the substitute players come on that he sees Scooby there. He shoots to his feet, almost tossing Fiona on to the floor.
“There he is!” Toby cries, pointing at the TV, “That’s my best mate from the club, that’s Scooby!”
He bounces up and down for a moment and finally settles when Fiona yanks on his shirt and drags him back on to the sofa. He doesn’t sit back though like he was before. Instead he sits on the edge of the seat, leaning forwards and staring at the screen. He doesn’t talk about the game, he barely acknowledges his house mates now. He’s just cheering Scooby on, shouting at him to run faster, clapping when he gets the ball. When Scooby almost manages to score but it gets deflected at the last moment he drops his head in to his hands and groans in misery. He throws himself back on the sofa and whimpers.
“Cheer up,” Fiona says, “There’s five minutes of stoppage time left.”
Toby sits up quickly. He shushes Carrie when she asks where the extra time came from and stays focused on the TV. By the time the match ends Scooby is covered in mud and grass stains. Toby squeals when he sees his best friend shaking Wayne Rooney’s hand. He sits back and grins.
“My mate shook Rooney’s hand,” he says quietly. “Brilliant,”
“Well, that was a good game,” Marco says. “When’s the next one.”
“It’s not for a while yet,” Toby says, “They’ve got to play each other again because they drew. And this time… They’re at Old Trafford.”
“Wait what?” Carrie asks, “I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t know much about football but isn’t Old Trafford Manchester United’s home ground?”
“Yeah,” Toby says smiling, “Yeah it is. And Scooby’s going to get to play there!”
For the first time in a while Toby rushes to training at the Academy. He can’t wait to see Scooby face to face and talk about the match. He wants to find out all the details, especially what Rooney’s like up close and in person. Scooby is surrounded by the other Academy members when Toby arrives in the changing rooms though so he’s forced to just wait until he can have a moment with Scooby. All of the boys are talking about the game, not a single one of them missed it even if they don’t support Skelmerage or Man U. It was one of their own playing and they all wanted to see how good Scooby was amongst professional players. They dissect Scooby’s performance amongst themselves, and with Scooby, picking apart why several shots at goal missed and whether the sending off of various players was right or not. They talk about the injuries that happened too, begging Scooby to tell them exactly how bad the injuries are. Scooby soaks it all in as Toby watches, his friend is surround by the other players, all asking questions at once, all shouting to be heard over one and other.
“Ok that’s enough,” The coach shouts as he enters the changing rooms, “I gather that you all watched the match last night from the way you’re acting. Glad to see you supporting your other team members. That’s what we like to see at Skelmerage.”
The academy members scatter, taking seats on the various benches around the room. Scooby rushes over to sit beside Toby and they share a grin. The coach clears his throat as some of the others keep talking. Scooby nudges Toby with his shoulder and flashes him a wide smile when Toby turns to look at him. There is another cough and the two boys notice that silence has fallen over the other trainees. They look at the coach intently.
“Now that I have your attention and you two have stopped having your moment,” he says, standing in the centre of the changing rooms and turning in a slow circle as he talks. The boys all giggle at his comment but quickly stop when he glares at them.. “I have some very important news to share. If you saw the match you will know that it was a vicious game. There were yellow cards, red cards, fouls, penalties and a lot of dirty play. We lost several good players in that match because of mistakes and bad tackles. Due to all of the injuries and suspensions that happened last night we are now FIVE men down on the first team.”
The boys all break out in to whispers, looking at each other excitedly.
“And as you all know,” the coach continues, “We are starting to pick some of our best players to step in and help out our team. After discussions with the managers, the players, the team owners and the other coaches here at the Academy we have settled on three of you to be substitutes for the replay at Old Trafford in a few weeks time.”
The boys all start to talk over each other now. They’re all buzzing, vibrating with excitement. Even Toby feels butterflies in his stomach, despite knowing that he’s unlikely to be chosen. It’s Old Trafford after all, one of the most famous football venues in the entire world. Even if the chosen players don’t actually get to play they will be there, seeing it live and in person from the perspective of a player, not a fan. More importantly, Toby realises, they’ll have the chance to be on TV, broadcast live across the globe so they can be seen by millions of people. It’s a chance of the lifetime and all of the academy members are itching to be the chosen ones. Slowly the conversations fade in to silence and they all turn to look at the coach again.
“It wasn’t an easy choice to make,” the coach says, “Each and every one of you is a good player, one of the best. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t. But we only need three of you so we’ve chosen the three that we all agree are the best players in the Academy. You will be continuing to train here, at the Academy, in the morning to improve your masters of core skills. But in the afternoon you will be heading over to the team training grounds and training with the first team. It will be hard. You’ll be amongst some very good players who have a lot more skill and experience than you. You will be expected to keep up, to work as hard as they are to become a part of the team. There will be no time for slacking. But make no mistake, they want you there and you will be able to learn a lot from them. I want you to listen to the first team and hopefully learn something new.”
The coach looks around the room, Toby following his gaze. The other academy members are all looking at each other, trying and failing to hide their smiles. Toby’s knee is bouncing and he can’t keep it still. The coach pulls out a small piece of paper. All the boys crane in closer to hear what is being said.
“Scooby, you’re still on the first team reserves,” the coach says, “I want you to show the others the ropes and stop them from cocking up too much.” Scooby nods, “Ok, the three of you that have been chosen to substitute for the replay are… Ricardo, Jonathan and Toby. Stay behind when training breaks for lunch and we’ll take you over to the training ground.”
The boys all burst out into conversation as soon as the coach leaves the room. Toby’s just sat there, not really sure what’s going on. Scooby nudges him and he slowly turns to look at his friend.
“Mate…” Scooby says, his smile getting wider and wider, “Mate, you’ve made it.”
“Made what?” Toby asks.
Scooby bursts out laughing and claps his friend on the back. They hear a loud whistle and a lot of shouting and suddenly the boys start to pour out of the changing rooms and towards the pitch. Scooby pulls on Toby’s arm and he mechanically follows his friend.
Toby can’t believe it. He never expected to be chosen, apart from deep down in a tiny corner of his heart. He never thought that he was one of the better players. He just figured that he was somewhere in the middle of the ability range of the Academy members. He knew that he wasn’t terrible, the worst player there, but he had never entertained the thought that he was in the top ten players at the Academy, let alone one of the top three. Toby glances at the other two boys who have been chosen to substitute. They both look a little shock, an expression of blank disbelief on their faces that probably matches the one on his own. They’re smiling though, slowly, as the realisation that this is really happening manages to sink in. The same smile starts to spread over Toby’s face too. He’s made it.