The champagne was flowing, the coach had been soaked in it, chants of “Champions! Champions!” were being sung in the showers; United had the league title in their grasp. They had one game left, at home to the bottom club, and after today’s win they just needed one point to clinch top spot. Getting at least a draw against the worst team in the league was a foregone conclusion.
Barry Wilson sat on the bench under his peg and stared down at the boots he was going to hang up after next weekend, oblivious to the rowdy celebrations going on all around him. Andy Richards flopped down next to him and handed him a plastic cup of champagne.
“Get that down yer neck.”
Barry took it and switched his stare to the bubbles swirling upwards in the cup.
“Come on, man. We’re home free. Can’t you see the headlines? ‘United make history!’ they’ll be saying. ‘First title for minnows!’ Ah, man. It’s gonna be awesome.”
“We haven’t won it yet.”
“As good as.”
“You’re probably right.”
“So come on, then. Get that down you and let’s get off to the pub. No training tomorrow.”
Andy was okay; he was the only person at the club that Barry really had any time for. Most of the rest he was indifferent to, and some he actively despised. Like Scott Palmer, the young ‘Scoring Sensation’, as the tabloids would have it. If United were in the position they were, it was mainly down to his goals – 34 in total. And didn’t he let everyone know it?!
Barry hated Palmer’s arrogance, and his lack of respect for the older members of the squad. And he was, he had to admit, more than a little jealous of the young man’s burgeoning fame. He was aware, though, that Palmer didn’t like him, either – they’d almost come to blows on several occasions in training when challenges between the two had been more robust than they needed to be.
Palmer was in the middle of the dressing room now, standing on a table and leading the team in a tortured rendition of ‘My Way’.
“What’s wrong with you, Wilson?! Ain’t you singing?” he shouted over to Barry.
Barry mouthed the words to the song to placate Palmer, but he didn’t feel in the mood for all this – far from it, in fact. After eighteen years at the club, he felt like he’d been spat out, just when glory was within touching distance. They hadn’t offered to reward his loyalty with a renewed contract, and if he decided to carry on, it would probably have to be with a club from a lower division. But he was too proud for that. And anyway, at 33, he was tired of the game, tired of the early mornings and rigorous training regimes, tired of the sexist/ racist/ homophobic banter of the dressing room, just plain tired.
The eighteen years had given him a certain degree of comfort – a nice suburban house, a decent car, some savings. But it had also given him a dodgy left knee – he’d had three operations on it – and a broken marriage. Helen had left him at the beginning of the season, and he couldn’t really blame her: she wanted kids, he couldn’t give them to her; and football took up almost all of his time, leaving them with just a month in every close season to spend together on a cheap package holiday to southern Spain.
His savings weren’t a fortune, and he doubted he could go more than five years without having to find another job. It was the footballer’s curse: the career was a short one, and unless you were in the top bracket of players who could command astronomical salaries – like Scott Palmer after this break-through season – you had to make plans beyond football. Some stayed on in the game, going into coaching or TV punditry. But Barry was fed up of it all and wanted out, so he’d need to find something. Running a pub was a traditional route away from the game, and he supposed something like that was what awaited him.
On the customers’ side of the pub bar later, Barry’s mood still hadn’t lifted, while all around him danced and sang and got steadily more and more drunk. At one point, Scott Palmer came over and slapped him on the shoulder.
“Ol’ man Wilson, as I live and breathe.”
“All right, Scott?”
“So, hanging up yer boots, then?”
“Had to be done some time. I’m–“
“Hey, Tommy. Get us a pint!” Palmer called over to Tommy Bailey, the goalkeeper, holding up the bar and looking a little the worse for wear already. Barry didn’t bother to pick up where he left off, but the youngster stuck around.
“What a career, eh? What is it? Fifteen years?”
“Eighteen years.” Palmer held an imaginary microphone in front of Barry’s face, adopting the clipped diction and phrasing of a TV commentator. “And what’s been the high point for you during all this time in the game?”
Barry wasn’t taking the bait and looked wearily around the bar.
Still in commentator mode, Palmer put the ‘microphone’ to his own mouth. “Stout defender Barry Wilson ends his uneventful career on a high note, winning an unheard-of title with tiny United, led by the dazzling skills of wonder boy Scott Palmer, surely a star of the future.”
Palmer ostentatiously put the ‘microphone’ down on the table and leaned in to Barry. “And that, Wilson, you loser, is how it’s gonna be. You’ll be digging up weeds in your garden while I’m playing in Spain or Italy, half a dozen Maseratis in the garage, more money than I know what to do with, and more than you’ve ever dreamed of. When we clinch the title next weekend, I’ll be all over the back pages. I’ll be making the history books. And you, my ol’ son … well, you won’t be.”
The cruel diatribe didn’t appear to faze Barry, and he simply raised his glass.
“To you, history boy.”
He took a swig of beer, cracked the glass down on the table and stared into Palmer’s eyes. They held each other’s gaze for a few moments before Palmer let out a forced, sarcastic laugh and moved away to join the party.
The week before the deciding game was one of high spirits in training, but as the crucial day drew nearer, the mood became increasingly serious; they still had one hurdle to clear, albeit a very low one. On the Saturday, Barry woke early and walked his dog, Pickles, to the park.
“So, boy. Today’s the day. History in the making – United champions for the first time. And my last game … only no one will care about that, will they? But hey, I’ll have more time for you, you silly old thing.” He leaned over to ruffle the dog’s fur, then straightened and looked up at the bright morning sky. “Yeah, my last game.”
A record 35,000 were packed into the stadium to witness the moment of United’s triumph, but if they expected an easy ride, they were very much mistaken. Perhaps it was complacency on the part of United’s players, but the already-relegated opposition, fired up by a final burst of pride and a nothing-to-lose attitude, caused them more problems than they were meant to and took the lead just before half-time. During the interval, the crowd set about their hamburgers and hot-dogs with concern on their faces, no one believing that they could have got this far only to die on the beach.
Down in the dressing room, United’s coach was laying into his players, singling out Barry, although he’d had nothing directly to do with the goal they’d conceded. Barry raised his head during the roasting to see Palmer looking daggers at him. But he calmly went back to staring at his boots, which were about to play their last 45 minutes, ever.
The second half got under way and it was obvious to the fans that words had been said in the dressing room because it was like a different team playing – much more urgent and incisive. Surely the vital goal they needed was just a matter of time. Five minutes from the final whistle, Andy Richards won the ball in his own half, Barry sprinted up the wing, took a pass from Andy and crossed into the goalmouth. It seemed like the defence was going to clear it easily, but Scott Palmer came thundering in and cracked a header into the net for the equaliser.
He wheeled away to milk the adulation of the crowd, going wild in the stands. The rest of the team chased after him and brought him to the ground, forming a writhing, celebratory heap. All but Barry, who walked back to his position in defence to wait for the re-start. When Palmer had extricated himself from the mass of bodies, he came jogging back to Barry. From the stands, it would have appeared that Palmer was thanking him for the cross, but when he got close, he smirked and jabbed his thumb into his own chest.
“You got it right, ol’ man: history boy!”
The game kicked off again, and the team were carried the last five minutes by an ecstatic crowd, knowing that the 1-1 draw would give them the title. That is, it would have done …
In the dying seconds, Barry got the ball on the edge of his own area.
“Clear it, Baz!” shouted Tommy Bailey.
But Barry heard neither Tommy nor the deafening noise from the crowd; he was in a different place entirely.
He turned, dribbled towards his own goal and tapped the ball into the net past Tommy, who was so shocked he didn’t even move.
The referee blew the final whistle, the crowd fell silent and Barry’s team-mates stood rooted to the spot, gaping at the man who had just lost them the title. He was standing on the penalty spot, his arms stretched out to the side at shoulder height, his face turned up to the bright blue sky. And he was smiling gently.
Scott Palmer was the first to reach him.
“You stupid fucker! You know what you’ve just done?!”
Barry lowered his gaze to look the young striker in the eye. His smile broadened.
“Made history, Palmer. Made history.”
And he went back to contemplating the heavens, while around him all hell broke loose.