Authors: Philip Kerr
This book is presented as a work of fiction and the mistakes it contains cannot be blamed on my secret manager (please don’t ask). To him I feel obliged to add, you have my total confidence, and I promise not to sack you even if this novel doesn’t win anything.
For Paul Sidey
I hate Christmas. I’m almost forty years old and it seems that I’ve hated it for more than half my life. I used to play professional football and I now coach others to do the same, so Christmas is a time of year I associate with a fixture list that’s as crowded as Hamleys toy shop. It means early-morning training on frostbitten pitches, niggling hamstrings that don’t have time to be properly rested, boozed-up fans expecting much more of their team than seems reasonable – to say nothing of the high expectations entertained by an unforgiving club owner or chairman – and so-called easy games against bottom-of-the-table chumps that can end up biting your arse.
This year is no different. We play Chelsea away on Boxing Day with the result that early on Christmas morning when ninety-nine per cent of the country is busy opening presents, going to church, watching the telly in front of a nice fire, or just getting pissed, we’re at our training ground in Hangman’s Wood, Thurrock. Two days later, on the twenty-eighth, we’re away again, to Newcastle, before a New Year’s Day game at home to Tottenham Hotspur. Three games in six days. That’s not sport, that’s a fucking ironman triathlon. When people who are involved in professional football talk about the beautiful game, they generally don’t include the Christmas holidays. And whenever I remember that
story about a friendly football match in no man’s land during the First World War between British and German soldiers, I think to myself, yeah, I’d like to see them try that without a goalkeeper who’s properly fit and fielding a lazy cunt of a midfield centre who’s hoping to get transferred to another club for double his already stratospheric wages during the January window. That’s what we call the four-week transfer period that exists in the middle of the season when FIFA says a European club can register a new player. Frankly the whole idea of the January window is a stupid idea – but that’s typical of FIFA – because it brings on a garage-sale mentality where clubs try to offload their dead wood and pay over-the-top money for some flash golden boy who might keep them in with a chance of winning something or just staying in their league. Having said all that, there’s no doubt that every manager is looking to buy players: the right deal can decide the league title, or save you from relegation. You only have to see which players have been bought in recent January windows to see the value of signing someone halfway through the season: Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho, Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic all arrived at their clubs during the January window. If you’ve ever been part of a housing chain, when a whole series of punters can’t buy a new house until they’ve sold their old one, then you’ll begin to appreciate the squeaky-bum complexity of what goes on in January. Personally, I think things were better the way they used to be when the window was always open; but then I am the kind of person who thinks nearly everything about the game was better before Sky TV, instant replays and the 2005 IFAB change to the offside rule made it what it is now.
But there’s another, altogether darker reason I don’t much like Christmas. Back in 2004, on 23 December, I was found guilty of rape and sentenced to eight years in prison, and you don’t have to be the ghost of Jacob fucking Marley to explain how that might exercise a negative effect on anyone’s Christmas, past, present and future.
But I’ll come back to that later on.
My name is Scott Manson and I am the team coach for London City. Because I always train with the lads I like to set an example, so for me this means no alcohol from 22nd December until the evening of New Year’s Day. It’s a bit like being a Jehovah’s Witness at some dumb WAG’s
wedding. No alcohol, no late nights, a sensible diet and definitely no smoking; God forbid that I – or more likely, Maurice McShane, the club’s fixer – should see one of my players in a magazine behind the wheel of his car coming away from a nightclub on Christmas Eve with a Silk Cut in his hand. I’ve even handed out a bollocking to a centre forward for getting a dragon tattoo – a Christmas present from his brain-dead wife – on the day before a New Year’s Day derby. In case you didn’t know, tattoos hurt like shit, plus the inks and pigments can be contaminated and these sometimes cause nausea, granulomas, lung disease, joint infections and eye problems. You’ve heard of the text in the Bible that says your body is a temple? This is especially true for footballers, and you’d better pray you don’t fucking damage yours if you want to keep on being paid a hundred grand a week. I mean it; you want to buy a footballer something nice for Christmas? Get him a box set of DVDs and a bottle of Acqua di Parma. Just don’t give him a voucher to cover his temple in graffiti – at least not before we’re done with the holiday and early January fixtures.
In the event London City, drew 0–0 against Manchester United, lost 4–3 to Newcastle, won 2–1 against Tottenham – all of which left us ninth in the Premier League – and drew 0–0 with West Ham in the first leg of the Capital One Cup. But none of that seemed to matter – at least not to me – because in the fifth minute of the match at Silvertown Dock against the Tots, Didier Cassell, our first-choice goalkeeper, suffered a serious head injury after colliding with the post in an attempt to save a powerful, curling shot from Alex Pritchard.
The impact makes for sickening viewing; at first everyone thought the sound picked up by the microphone beside the goal was the ball hitting the advertising hoarding, and it was only after Sky Sports had shown the incident several times in slow motion – which must have delighted Didier’s family – that people realised the thud you could hear was actually the goalkeeper’s skull fracturing against the post. I’m not sure who was more upset, our own lads or the ones from Tottenham.
Cassell was knocked unconscious and he was still insensible when he was carried off the pitch by the St John Ambulance men. Four days later he’s still unconscious in hospital. No one is using the word coma – no one except the newspapers, of course, they all have him playing in goal for the team eternal – but with a third round FA Cup tie away to Leeds United scheduled for the weekend, we’re already looking to buy a replacement goalkeeper from my dad’s old club, Heart of Midlothian, whose creditors think that paying their debts is more important than not conceding goals. Kenny Traynor is a bargain at nine million quid, which is almost two thirds of what the Jambos apparently owe the banks.
Our recently appointed manager, João Gonzales Zarco, spoke about Didier Cassell in his usual enigmatic fashion with all the television cameras and reporters who were waiting on the pavement outside the Royal London Hospital when he and I went to visit him:
‘I don’t want to talk about replacement goalkeepers. Please don’t ask me that kind of question. At this particular time all of our thoughts are with Didier and his family. Obviously we wish him a speedy recovery. All I can say about what happened is that no matter how many plans you make or how much in control of a team you are, life is always putting the ball in the back of your net.’ An often emotional man, Zarco wiped a tear from his eye as he added, ‘Listen, in football you can’t play under the floodlights without there being shadows, and it’s essential to know that. Every player, every manager in our league understands what it’s like to play under a shadow sometimes. However, I should also like to say this – and I’m speaking now to those of you who have written or said things that shouldn’t ever be said when a brave young man is fighting for his life: I’m like an elephant. I don’t forget who says what and when. I don’t forget. So when all this is over I will trample all over you, wipe my arse with your words and then piss on your heads. The rest of you should always remember that at London City we are a close family. One of our favourite sons is sick, yes. But we will get through this. I promise you, this club will walk in the light again. And so will Didier Cassell.’
I couldn’t have put it better myself. I especially liked the part about João Zarco wiping his arse with the words of certain journalists and pissing on their heads. But then I would, wouldn’t I? I’ve no reason to like any of the newspapers. A lot of the journalists I know are troublemakers, only they call it getting a story, as if that justifies everything. It doesn’t. Not in my book.
Of course, we didn’t know it then, but our troubles at the Crown of Thorns were just beginning.
The Crown of Thorns is the nickname local people have for the City football stadium at Silvertown Dock in London’s East End, although the phrase was first used by the sculptor Maggi Hambling, who was the artistic consultant to the building’s architects Bellew & Hammerstein. I like her work a lot and own a number of fantastic pictures she painted of the sea. Yes, the sea. They sound crap, I know, but if you saw them you’d see that they are really something special.
The stadium is not dissimilar in construction to the Bird’s Nest in Beijing, which was used for the 2008 Olympics, being two structures independent of each other: an orange concrete seating bowl (orange is the colour of the City home strip) and an outer steel frame which really does resembles a crown of thorns. It’s the most distinctive building in the whole of east London and cost five hundred million quid to build, so it’s just as well the club is owned by a Ukrainian billionaire who must shit money he’s got so much of it. According to
magazine, Viktor Yevegenovich Sokolnikov is worth twenty billion dollars, which makes him the fiftieth richest man in the world. Don’t ask me how Mr Sokolnikov made his Matterhorn-sized pile of cash. Frankly I prefer to live in ignorance about that side of things. All I know is what Mr Sokolnikov told me: that his father worked in a factory that manufactured photographic film in a little Ukrainian town called Shostka, and that he got his first million trading coal and timber, which he then spent on some risky investments that paid off. And don’t ask me how he persuaded the FA and the Mayor of London to let him take over the debt on a quartet of old east London football clubs that had gone into administration so that he might relaunch them in the Second Division as London City, either. But money – shed-loads of the stuff – might have had something to do with it. Sokolnikov has spent a fortune regenerating Silvertown Dock and the Thames Gateway, and the football club – which achieved promotion to the Premier League after just five years – now employs more than four hundred people, not to mention the money it brings to a part of London where investment was once a dirty word. As well as the stadium, Sokolnikov has promised that his company, Shostka Solutions AG, will build the new Thames Gateway Bridge that was cancelled by Boris Johnson back in 2008 because it was too expensive; or at least he will when the Labour Party cunts on the planning inquiry wake up and smell the coffee he’s making. Right now the project is beset with objections.