The ball sailed silently over the back of the stands and away, lost forever in a maze of winding streets.
“Alex?” I called to my only coach. “Can you get another bag of balls, mate?” I glared at Dieter Jarosch, the guilty culprit. Again. “That’s four you’ve lost now, Dieter”I bellowed, holding up my fingers just in case he didn’t understand. “Four! Do you think we’re made of money? I’m supposed to be building a Bundesliga team here, not overseeing the delivery of a €20 football to every sodding child in the surrounding area. Keep the sodding thing down!”
Dieter Jarosch scratched his bottom and stared at the floor. I’d been told that the big 28 year old had scored goals for fun back in the amateur leagues, but for the life of me I couldn’t fathom how. He was like Ian Ormondroyd, but without the former Villa striker’s natural grace and poise.
Alex remerged from the tunnel, dragging a sack of balls behind him like a particularly sporty Santa. He hauled one out, gave it a perfunctory squeeze, and then booted it onto the pitch.
“They’re doing well, aren’t they?” he grinned as he took his place next to me on the bench.
“Which team?” I asked genuinely. Alex had arranged an early practice game between the seniors and the youths and, at the moment, still goalless, it was hard to tell which team was which. I wouldn’t mind, but the eldest youth player was 15. They should have been out trying to buy fags and cider, not holding their own against a team of professional footballers. I watched helplessly as Bernd Maier, my captain and a veteran of the regional leagues, tried to play a simple pass to Turkish striker Faruk Gul, missing him by about six yards. I groaned and began to repeatedly bounce my head off the side of the dug-out.
“Ah, come on”laughed Alex. “It’s not that bad. At least they’re trying to pass the ball. They’ve never done that before. Usually they just try to kick the brand name off it. You’ve made them think about their game.”
I looked up, just as Marc Schnatterer chased a loose ball off the pitch, slowing down too late to avoid the advertising hoardings.
“They’ve not exactly got to think about much, Alex”I said as Schnatterer screamed and vanished into the first row of seats with a crash. “It’s 4-4-2, I’ve told them to keep it simple, pass it short, man-to-man mark and just go out and enjoy themselves.
“Exactly”said Alex. “You know, for an English manager, you’re quite forward-thinking.”
“I’m not a manager though”I groaned. “I’m a journalist. I should be up in that press box, eating my own body weight in sausages, stopping only to spell someone’s name wrong. I should be unleashing another ill-considered opinion that only popped into my head while I was on the loo this morning. I should be desperately trying to crowbar references to current affairs into my opening paragraph or covering up my ignorance by basing all my stories on the suggestions of ‘sources’. That’s my football pitch, Alex. That’s where I earn my money. I can‘t do this!”
“Yes, you can!” Alex snapped and he slapped me hard in the face with the back of his hand, as if I was a puppy who had urinated in his slippers. My cheek flushed bright red and the tears came quickly. Alex turned away in disgust.
Back on the pitch, Christian Gmuder slammed a snapshot past youth goalkeeper Uwe Proll, a ginger-headed child who was yet to embark upon his first shave. Bernd Maier roared in delight. I just sat quietly, biting my lip.
“I’m sorry”said Alex, staring at the floor. “I will understand if you want to dismiss me.”
“I’m not going to dismiss you, Alex”I said as I tried to rub some life back into my cheek. The skin glowed like the light on a strip club. Alexander Raaf was a powerful bastard, built like a gorilla with hands like snow shovels. Just 35, he’d been with Heidenberg for years, a failure as a player, but an inspiration from the sidelines. He wasn’t a tactical genius or a master of technique, he was a motivator and the kids loved him as much as they feared him.
“You should dismiss me”he mumbled. “I should not have struck you.”
“No”I shook my head. “You shouldn’t. But I needed telling. I just don’t know where to start with this lot. They make Southend United look the 1982 Brazilian World Cup squad. They’ll pass kidney stones before they pass the ball with any accuracy.”
“Can I ask you a question, Iain?” Alex said, turning to face me.
“Did you know where to start when you wrote Football Fables?”
“You’ve read Football Fables?”
“Of course, I have. Everyone has. It is my son’s favourite. He makes me read it to him every night.”
“Yes”said Alex with a solemn nod. “He particularly likes the double chapter on Brian Clough where Tony Woodcock and Viv Anderson recount their favourite memories of the man we all knew as ‘Old Big ‘Ed’. Myself, I would rather read Chopper Harris’ chilling recollection of the 1970 FA Cup Final, but you know how kids are. Demanding.”
“But did you know where to start?”
“No”I admitted. “I don’t suppose I did. When you set out to produce an amusing and accessible collection of anecdotes from some of football’s most enduring characters, it can be daunting. I felt like Columbus aboard the Santa Maria, heading out across the Atlantic, not knowing whether I would ever see land again.”
“Of course you did”smiled Alex. “But you did see land again. You wrote Football Fables, you brought those characters together and you told their stories. You gave my son, and so many people’s sons, a priceless gift. And you can do this.”
“Can I? Can I really?”
“Yes”smiled Alex. “Of course you can. And I‘ll be here to help you.”
The big German extended his hand. I took it in my own. It felt like chain mail.
“We can do it, Alex. We’ve got three friendlies to kick them into shape and then the season starts. It’s a big ask, but if we work together, there’s nothing we can’t achieve.”
There was a dull thump and a collective groan from the pitch.
“DIETER! That’s five now, you gormless erection. No more new balls! You can effing well climb over the stand and get that one back. No I’m not effing joking! No! No, don’t shake your head at me, you lumbering fanny. Get out!”
Alex smiled. “See?” he said. “This is why we wanted an English manager.”