My assistant manager, Sammy Lee, led me onto the training pitch at Melwood. There was already all sorts of activity going on all over the place. The whole senior squad was dotted around, stretching and doing keepy ups. Carragher was isolated on his own down by a corner flag, just screaming. Veins were throbbing out from his head, his face purple, eyes wide, sweat and spit coming off him like a waterfall.
I leaned down to Sammy. ‘What’s going on there, what’s Carra at?’. Sammy shook his head.
‘Since Kenny got the boot, Carra’s taken this notion about communication and has decided to practice his shouting and screaming skills. It’s all he does now, all day long’. I nodded as Sammy spoke. Then something else caught my eye.
At the other end of the pitch I could see Jay Spearing in goals, stuck out on the wing was Martin Kelly and stood near the corner of the box was Lucas. Then as if on cue, Kelly crossed the ball to Lucas who nodded it down into the path of an onrushing Steven Gerrard, who I had just noticed. Gerrard smashed the volley past the helpless Jay Spearing, who didn’t even dive. He just leapt into a kind of joyous up and down arm pumping motion and screamed ‘That’s it our Steve!’ as Gerrard wheeled off pumping his arms at an imaginary Kop.
But what really caught me on the hop was the second Gerrards volley hit the net, I heard a thick Scottish voice. ‘Awww ya beauty! What a hit son! What. A. Hit.’ I craned my head around the dugout I had settled in with Sammy. Andy Gray was hunched there with a microphone and daft looking headphones on. He noticed me from the corner of his eye but turned slightly to ignore me.
‘What the hell is Andy Gray doing here? And he has those daft headphones on, the big ones. He looks like he’s on the way to the home changing room at the Emirates’.
‘Stevie got him in, this is all he does all training, re-enact his Olympiakos goal over and over and over and Andy does the commentary’ said Sammy. I pinched the bridge of my nose. In the background Spearing, Kelly and Lucas took their places to begin the farcical pantomine again.
‘I’ll tell him to leave’ and I looked round the dugout.
‘Andy’. He looked further away, refsuing to acknowledge me.
‘Andy’. Again he just looked the other way.
‘ANDY!’ I shouted. He looked at me with his big hurt eyes, like a small labrador pup whose piss puddle has just been stood in.
‘What?’ he said in his thick accent. The ‘t’ at the end of what really punctuated the end of the word.
‘You can’t be commentating on our training sessions Andy. You’ll have to leave’. He looked lost for a moment and then produced a tactics table from behind him.
‘Ah robbed this from Sky before Ah laift. It’s the tactics table mesailf and Richard used tay use after matches. Ah could use it wih yer trainings?’. He stood there gesturing to the tactics table, his eyes so hopeful. His sanity and his dignity as a man might have depended on this. How could I dent this poor mans pride?
The tactics table smashed onto his prostrate body as it lay on the tarmac outside the gates of Melwood. ‘What a hit son! What. A. Hit.’ I joked to the security man who had first thrown Andy and then the table. The first decision of my reign as Liverpool managaer was done. Now, onto the hard stuff.
The call came as I was enjoying the dregs of sleeping in. Just conscious enough to appreciate the warmth, I savoured my imprint on my mattress. Sunlight was slicing sneaklily in through the blinds and I could almost hear the blue sky cloudlessly humming by. The peace was interrupted by my phone beginning to ring.
As it was morning and I was still in sleep mode, my voice emerged from my mouth like a drunken caveman from his cave the morning after.
‘Urhhlo?’. The voice that shot down the other end was lean and officious. It was an American.
‘Mr Daniel Leydon?’
‘Is this about my passport?’
‘No. This is John W Henry. I head up the Fenway Sports Group. We’ve recently purchased Liverpool Football Club and are aiming to have the management area fully staffed on a permanent contractual basis as soon as we can’. Due to my dim witted slumber, his side of the conversation was entering my head akin to the manner in which a square peg would fit in a round hole.
‘I don’t really see how my passport comes into it though’.
‘Mr Leydon we are en route to your house for a meeting. This is serious. Is there anywhere we can land?’. I opened my eyes.
John Henry emerged from beneath the titanic blades of his chopper, which was occupying all of my front garden and had squashed my neighbours shed (which I didn’t really worry about as he had lent me weed killer that turned my tarmac lime green). Henry was bent over, one hand holding his glasses, one thrust out to shake my hand as he ran towards me. His mouth looked like it was saying ‘Mr Leydon, good to meet you’ but the deafening blast coming from the still running chopper drowned everything else to mute. I stood there gapemouthed as he shook my hand.
‘Mr Leydon I am very sorry for the dramatic urgency, but we need you to come to Melwood immediately’
‘I haven’t had my breakfast yet. I was just gonna eat it’ I said, pointing back at my house ‘I could go then?’. Henry looked a bit bemused. He ummed, checked his watch and then looked at the chopper pilot.
‘We could get you whatever food you want when we get to Melwood?’ he said hopefully as he looked back at me.
‘I’ve already got the water boiling inside. Poached eggs?’
John W Henry liked his eggs soft and his toast lightly buttered.
As I watched my house fall away with the rest of the ground I saw my mothers car pull into the driveway. Her face gazed up through the window, her mouth hanging open. I jerked my thumb in the direction we were going and mouthed the words ‘I’m going out, be back later’. The car disappeared beneath us.
‘John is this the same helicopter that brought Ryan Babel to London that time?’. He laughed and in doing so completely ignored my question. Then fixing me a stare, he spoke.
‘Daniel, this is-’
‘Call me Dan’
‘Okay. Dan I’m just going to be straight up. FSG needs you to be the next manager of Liverpool Football Club. We will pull out all the stops to get you. What do we have to do to ensure you take the post?’. Incredulous, I hazarded a question.
‘You are aware of who I am right?’.
‘I understand this seems like insanity to you Daniel-’
‘I understand this seems like isanity to you Dan, but we have air tight logic that points to you, for whatever reason, as the definite choice for the job. The intellect that has chosen you has never in my long and varied history of dealing with it, been proven wrong. I have no reason to doubt it. So when it informs me that you are the one to employ I will follow up on the instruction to the best of my ability and considerable financial clout’.
I thought back over what he had said. These guys didn’t get to where they were (gatecrashing peoples breakfasts in massive helicopters) by going on dodgy info. Add my eternal illogical psychotic passion for Liverpool Football Club into the mix and I had my answer.
‘John, I’ll take it’. His eyes lit up. He grabbed my hand and shook it vigorously.
‘Great news Dan! That is great, once we get to Melwood we can get the contract signed. If you’ll excuse me I need to get a few things in order’ and he took out his mobile phone. He must have been talking to his secretary.
‘Yeah, that’s right, he agreed to it. Get the youth squad in off the training pitch. Yeah I’ll bet they’re disappointed after they practiced that ‘Welcome’ formation but we don’t need it now. Oh and did you get Linda in touch with that decorator? We need to get that mural of Ian Rush painted by tomorrow evening. One more thing, the zookeeper said he needs more help, for Christ sake get him an assistant, those penguins are multiplying. What? I don’t care if you can’t get the San Diego zookeepers, get Comolli on it, recruitment is his area’. With that he hung up.
‘Dan we’ll be approaching Merseyside in the next fifteen minutes. I hope you’re ready’
‘John, I was born ready’ I beamed as I looked out on the Irish Sea as it flitted by way beneath us. Melwood was waiting for me.
It was a night of endless possibility. Somewhere in the bowels of FSG Headquarters resided a machine of incalcuable calculating and computing prowess. Sheer bulk, it stood all of thirty foot high and measured on a good day at least seventy foot long. It’s dark frame gave rise to thoughts of a gothic mutant printing press. It’s flying buttresses didn’t help. Its constant whirring pieces and barely discernible inner workings were all an oily black. Some say it was built by a crazed mathematician with a fetish for horror and engineering. Others say it was just always there, right where it stood, and that the building was designed around it.
Whatever its origin, it was now used by John Henry as the sole intellectual thrust behind his fabled moneyball method of operation. Having never failed him as he oversaw the resurgence of the Redsox he was now aiming its limitless economical nous at ‘The Liverpool Problem’.
The January transfer window had thrown up the Torres conundrum. The doe eyed Spaniard became an out of form spanner in the works with only days of business left. The machine had come through in that instance, and a feisty Urugayan had arrived accompanied by a Newcastle target man with as big a transfer fee as had been seen in the English game.
But the machine was once again being called into action, on this aforementioned night of endless possibility. John Henry filed into the machines underground cathedral flanked by two figures completely concealed in purple robes. He took a vial of dark syrupy liquid from his jacket. The machine had somehow assimilated a clock into its workings at some point in its clouded history and it then dramatically chimed midnight.
As the clock steadily tolled out the hours Henry held the vial aloft and his voice rang loud and clear, ‘I John W. Henry bring forth this sacred virgin blood and implore the great calculating one to reveal the mysteries I set before it’. As the two robed figures began to chant, a jagged drawer slid open on a compartment at the front of the machine. It screeched as it slid to a standstill. If one was to look upon the inside they might have fathomed that it was a rich deep red velvet, but if pressed to touch, they would have refused on the grounds that it looked like it was heaving with breathe. And they might have been right.
Henry stepped forward and steadily poured the blood into the velvet drawer, which accepted the offering by allowing it to seep down into the fabric. With its appetite apparently sated, the drawer slid closed. As the last chime of midnight died down, Henry dropped to his knees and declared his question. ‘O ancient and knowing one. Who in your exalted opinion is the ideal candidate to lead Liverpool Football Club?’.
In something akin to another dimension that lay at the heart of the machines oily leaden mass, a great shattering of possible possibilities began. Atoms collided. The fabric of existence was stripped down to a legible series of esoteric hieroglyphs. The machine was at work deducing from all available knowledge who was to be the next successor to the Anfield Throne. John Henry waited. He looked upon the machine but could not focus upon it. Whenever he gazed on it he felt as if some incomprehensible intelligence was probing his soul through his eye sockets.
As was customary when it was calculating something it produced some residual output. A small door became apparent in its side, and then slid upward to reveal a completely black scowling penguin with brilliant orange eyes. It cocked its head at Henry who vaguely acknowledged it with the air of a man who was sick to the gills of seeing angry little penguins with orange eyes appear from the side of other worldly machines. He made an absent minded hand gesture and the two robed figures set about herding the penguin to a side room. As the angry little penguin entered this room thousands of glaring orange eyes turned to greet him. He did the penguin equivalent of a shrug and waddled off into their midst.
A solution was found in the depths of the universe that resided at the heart of the machine. It seared towards what was akin to reality in a super nova blaze and was finally, after some clanking of metal and whirring of cogs, translated to something legible to the eyes of John Henry. A thin strip of paper was fed from the machine. Henry pulled at it and began to read what it said. He read with the ever quickening speed of a man who is not liking what he’s seeing but is desperately trying to get to the end in the hope of finding some form of redemptive information. He got to the end and his shoulders sagged. He had not found what he was looking for. The strip of paper fell from his hand and landed on the floor.
Henry rubbed his forehead and massaged his hip, ‘I thought we had this goddamned club figured out, I thought we had our man. Oh boy, Kenny is not gonna be happy with this’. He seemed to collect himself and took out his phone. As he was leaving the room, once again flanked by the robed figures, he talked to his secretary ‘Get me Linda on the line, I need her to wash my Liverpool kit, I’ve got a five a side on the astro tonight. Oh and we need to employ another zookeeper to take care of those goddamned penguins’.
As Henrys voice faded away down some neon lit hallway the crumpled strip of paper lay forlornly on the ground. The name of the next Liverpool manager was etched onto it in a dark ink. Two important words sat next to eachother at the end of a sentence. Daniel Leydon.
This scene is inspired by a passage from Michael Crichtons 'Jurassic Park'. The passage was vividly brought to the screen by Steven Spielberg in the film of the same name.
The majestic figure of the Emirates stadium reared up into the night as the ever present drum of thunder circled it like a hungry predator.
A cacophony of whimpers tore upwards into the midnight gloom. Primal guttural fear. The Arsenal football squad stood there. In matching red uniforms they gripped their rifles that reassuring bit tighter. Trees swept in the brewing storm like macabre mutant feather dusters. Rain spat itself on all and sundry, a tingling, cold slap as remembrance.
From between the trees emerged a heavy duty forklift. It’s spotlights, burning starkly fluorescent, lasered off, ever thickening, into the night at unsettling angles. A piercing mechanic whine flew from the hidden depths of its engine, like a curse flying forth from a freshly opened Egyptian tomb. Pat Rice sat behind the wheel, a grim, determined look on his face.
Worried eyes looked on as the forklifts cargo settled to a halt on the pristine concrete. Now that Rices role in proceedings was over, he leapt from the vehicle, turned on his heel and sprinted off into the night. As he ran, his hard hat toppled from his head and clattered to the ground, an Arsenal FC logo emblazoned across it as it rolled to a dismal stop in a grimy London puddle.
The cargo was a reinforced steel structure in the style of a truck trailer. Horizontal slats stroked around its form at a height of six feet. For all the tension this box created, it emmanated a constant silence.
A uniformed Francesc Fabregas stepped forward from the group. He turned his head and gazed up to a large window near the top of the stadium. A fork of lightning ruptured the blackness and momentarily a cross armed figure was silhouetted behind the glass. The figure seemed to nod. Cesc knew what he had to do. He took a deep breath and signalled to four more men.
Gael Clichy, Abou Diaby, Jack Wilshere and Manuel Almunia reluctantly shouldered their rifles, positioned themselves at each corner of the container and heaved it forward along two runners that led to a specialised entrance cut deep into the stadium wall. As the end of the container slotted into the wall Diaby jumped away in fear. His soul was unsettled, like the surface of a lake when a pebble is thrown in, rings of disquiet grew larger and larger, echoing forever. His eyes had met with something through that slat. When he looked upon it, pure malevolence looked back.
The wind howled and whipped at everything with stinging rain as its weapon of choice. Thunder rolled through the night sky like a titanic wave pumelling along a cliff face, shaking the earth to its core.
Cesc signalled to Clichy to climb on top of the steel structure. He shut his eyes, blessed himself and then proceeded to climb the ladder set onto the side. Once on top he grabbed the handle that would pull the front side upward letting its cargo free. Before he did, he looked to the rest of the squad. His eyes settled on Andriy Arshavin, who nodded solemnly. Clichy raised the door.
There was a thunderous movement inside the container. Three thuds toward the open end. A heavy impact. The container was forced backwards on its runners by about three feet. The open end was completely exposed now, a gaping maw, ready to suck in whoever was unluckiest.
Manuel Almunia had had a good start to the day. He had risen early, checked news from home in Spain on his laptop while he ate some wholegrain toast with red onion and Portugese sardines. Driving into training he had gotten nearly all green lights. Never in his darkest most unrelenting nightmares would he have thought that night he would be the one nearest the container. Maybe humans aren’t wired to conjure thoughts that depressing.
As Manuel Almunias terror struck frame was dragged through the gap between the container and the wall, Cesc Fabregas’ heart sank to what seemed like the bottom of all existence. Nevetheless he rallied the squad. They surrounded the three available sides and pointed their rifles through the slats. The muzzle flashes lit up the container like a gunpowder strobe light. These flashes jarred the players vision. The sounds of Almunia screaming were scars indelibly etched into their collective conscience. Cesc could see tears streaming down Samir Nasris face as he repeatedly shot his rifle through that little space. Shooting and weeping. A shell of a man. Almunias screams gave way to a stomach sickening meaty crack.
The view from behind the large pristine pane of glass was expansive. Mr. Wenger watched on as his only fit goalkeeper was torn from safety and disappeared into the steel container he himself had ordered. A bead of rain snaked its way haphazardly down the glass, illuminated by the errant flashes of gunfire that flew up from below. As Wenger bored of watching what seemed like a lightning storm confined to a 12 by 6 metal trailer below he tracked the raindrop with his hawk like attention. Something instantly jostled him from this hypnotic droplet. A projectile was coming directly for him, flying upward from the scene of chaos below. From amidst the rain, screams and gunfire it sailed and hit the pain of glass right in front of Wengers face.
Manuel Almunias dead eyes locked onto Wengers for a second and then his head fell silently away from the window, leaving nothing but a bloody residue as a clue to its presence. Arsene Wenger was unshaken, he stroked his chin. He was down a goalie, but he was up a, well he didn’t know quite how to categorize it, but he was up one Jens Lehmann. A slow grin spread across his face as shouts of ‘Shoot him! Shooooooot hiiiiiiiim!’ echoed up from below like puddle splashes trying to contend with a downpour.
(This article is set six years ago with the footballing world at the time as a backdrop. After reading Sid Lowes article with Xavi, I was inspired by this quote - “I'm happy because, from a selfish point of view, six years ago I was extinct; footballers like me were in danger of dying out. It was all: two metres tall, powerful, in the middle, knockdowns, second balls, rebounds … but now I see Arsenal and Villarreal and they play like us”)
Path of the Playmaker
At dusk one evening, deep in the confines of La Masia, a young male playmaker rises from his slumber, stretches, and silently makes his way to the training pitches. The floodlights are on, as they always are in the evenings. He takes a football and after effortlessly doing keepy ups for a minute or two begins to do laps. He keeps the ball at his feet and his head up. He always keeps his head up...
There’s shelter here at La Masia. Shelter for that rare breed of footballer, the playmaker. Fears have been stoked over recent seasons for the survival of these delicate athletes. With scouting academies more persistently opting for taller, stronger, faster players, the smaller, incisive playmakers are in danger of losing their place in world football completely. However, hope is not gone yet. There is a conservation project taking place at La Masia, (which translates as ‘The Farmhouse’) that aims to ensure the survival of these endangered players.
“Playmakers won’t survive without isolated, protected habitats like here at La Masia. They need a place where their unique footballing gifts are given game time. They need to mature. The sad thing is managers of youth teams need to produce players so cosistently that they won’t dedicate time to smaller players, even though studies show it would be in their best interests in the long run. If we write off these players that operate between the lines, they are as good as extinct. Facilities like this are the best hope for keeping playmakers from joining sweepers on the endangered species list” says playmaker conservationist and La Masia technical director, Rodolfo Borrell.
It is hard to argue with his points. The man speaks passionately and knowledgably about the path of the modern playmaker. He believes football is at a crossroads and that it needs to choose the route that embraces finesse and skill rather than that of brute force. The game is becoming more dynamic, a more welcoming home to large, steam engines of players. Instead of evading a tackle with a delicate feint, or threading a pass through the eye of a split second needle, these new players just bulldoze through in a thundering bluster. The beautiful side of the game is on the way out along with its heralds, the playmakers.
Iconic names that currently occupy this endangered position chime like lyrical cathedral bells across the collective minds of the game. Scholes, Pirlo, Riquelme, to name but a few. All purveyors of fine passes, with an almost psychic reading of where the play is headed, their habitat is falling prey to new breeds of midfielder. The playmakers value to a team exceeds that of pace, or strength or height. Exploitative talent like they have can unravel a previously impenetrable defense with one flick of a boot, a body feint or even a purposeful flick of the eyes to throw a defender off the scent of the next pass. They operate between the lines, the ones that confine the pitch and the ones that define expected movement in the oppositions head.
Stationary, with a foot on the ball and their head up, they are at their most lethal. With a knack for being well ahead of play and popping up just at the right moment in the right place, players attempting to mark them often find it a challenge. Nowadays they forage for scraps, not getting playing time as coaches view their lack of brute force as a weakness. Bereft of time on the pitch, the playmaker falls down the pecking order and may eventually fall out of the game entirely. This sad story is being played out with greater and greater frequency, much to the detriment of the game as a whole. Rampaging hulks have colonised the playmakers natural habitat and as a result they might not survive.
The dedicated staff of La Masia hope for a different ending to the story. They dream of a world where the playmaker is the central cog around which a team will be built, complimented by the force of modern behemoths, not forced out as a result of it. For the young playmakers currently honing their skills in Catalonia, the future is an uncertain thing. Borrell dreams of a world where they can spend hours a day training, not worrying if managers will find a place for their unique skills. Eventually, once deemed mature enough to make that leap up, they will progress from the facility and roam the world looking for a suitable team. A team with space for a player who can make things happen. If forward looking conservationists like Borrell at La Masia succeed in their pipe dream, these delicate footballer will find those teams and they will flourish.
The playmaker currently enjoys a healthier standing in the game. With his natural habitat partially reclaimed, he can once again roam between midfield and the oppositions box, free to sate his appetite for picking passes and making goal scoring opportunities. Always with his head up. Always looking for spaces...