Training was a pleasant distraction from Bradley’s family problems. They were getting more screwed up by the day and even though his dad was now ‘off the scene’, it didn’t stop him phoning Bradley every other day telling him all about his wonderful new job in LA. Apparently, there had been some visa issues with Lucy but the club had a decent immigration lawyer who worked things out for them. They had settled in their new apartment and were loving life in the sun. Good luck to them, he thought. Always good to make a fresh start now and again.
The team were playing some superb football under Silvio, winning ten games on the trot, including an amazing 8-0 win over Burnley where Bradley managed to score four of their goals. By Christmas, they were back on top of the league by three points and had scored a total of sixty goals in twenty games which was some kind of record. Defences couldn’t cope with Arsenal’s relentless attacking play and although there would let a few goals in, they were always confident of out-scoring any opposition.
There had been a couple of big European teams interested in buying Bradley but the club had no desire to sell their best player, especially as he was only twenty years old and had the best years in front of him. Bradley had no intentions of leaving either. He was very happy at Arsenal and enjoying his football, learning a lot from his new coaching staff. He was also very happy with his love life; Jessie was spending more and more time at his apartment and they were getting ever closer to each other. Her dad had regular stories to tell to whoever he had in his taxi, although he had been warned not to give too much away on more sensitive matters regarding the club.
Bradley was gradually withdrawing from his own family; he needed to spread his wings at his age in any case, but their behaviour made it even more desirable. Gradually, his dad’s calls became less frequent and they were now down to a call once a week, normally after the weekend’s game so they could talk football for half an hour while Jessie fussed around him and kept the flat clean. He was still concerned about his mum and had kept in touch with Stuart without Martine knowing, just so he could be kept updated on her drinking and health in general. He hadn’t spoken to her since they had argued on the phone when she was clearly drunk, so speaking to Stuart now and again was his only option. It suited him fine.
Everything was going well for him now. Scotland’s Euro qualifying campaign was back on track with further wins against Wales 3-0 and Luxembourg 5-0. Next up was Italy at home and he was looking forward to renewing his acquaintance with his old Arsenal boss. They had texted a few times since he left and Bradley was well aware of Italy’s resurgence as a football team. Sr Cantonelli had got them playing like Arsenal and they were demolishing the other teams in the group making them favourites to qualify. Scotland would have to settle for a play-off place at best.
As the Scotland .v. Italy game drew nearer, the text exchanges with Sr Cantonelli increased. Mostly it was all banter but one text in particular threw Bradley for a moment. He had suggested speaking to the manager of AC Milan who was very interested in getting Bradley to sign for them, but had to go through the proper channels; speaking to the player’s club, then his agent, and only when these protocols had been observed and the club were happy to allow them to talk to the player, could the club talk to the player. It was bureaucratic, but for a reason. Sr Cantonelli’s text didn’t appear to be following those protocols and this un-nerved Bradley somewhat. He didn’t know how to respond and wondered about reporting it to his new boss at Arsenal. That would get Sr Cantonelli in trouble and there was no way he was going to do that, so he didn’t reply.
All the Scottish papers were hyping up the big game and saying how Scotland would dent Italy’s qualifying chances by giving them ‘a doing’ at Hampden Park. This only succeeded in placing an enormous amount of pressure on Scotland’s young team forcing Jimmy Anderson to face the press and try to lower their expectations. The gathered press were having none of it; they had just been to the final of the World Cup, surely that made them the second best team in the world now and Italy were ranked two places lower than Scotland. Surely a home win was a foregone conclusion?
Despite Jimmy’s attempts to calm the press and the Scottish public down, he knew the lads were going to feel pressurised to win. There wasn’t anything else he could do now except try to boost the team’s confidence and tell them that the pressure was off. Just go out there and relax, and the result will come. An early goal would settle them down and keep the crowd happy, or so he hoped.
At kick-off time, Hampden was full to capacity with a fair number of Italian fans making up the numbers. It was a tense first half, the early goal never came although Scotland did have a couple of decent chances to score, only to be thwarted by the Italian goalie.
Jessie had come up for this game with her dad who found it strange being a broad Cockney sitting there cheering for Scotland. It raised a few eyebrows from the Scottish fans sitting around them as well, especially when he kept shouting ‘Get in there Bradley!’
The second half was much more open with both sides desperate to score a winning goal which would put them at the top of their group. By the 80th minute, it was looking like the game was heading for a 0-0 draw when Bradley got hold of the ball on the edge of the box. The Italian defence expected him to pass the ball to a better placed colleague nearer the goal, but he caught them on the hop and lobbed a speculative kick over the defence and into the back of the net after the goalkeeper had got a slight touch to the ball. 1-0 Scotland!!!
Hampden Park exploded in delight. Jimmy Anderson even did a touchline dance of delight with the crowd. Bradley was mobbed by his team mates as the Italian defence pointed fingers at each other for being caught out so easily. This was only the second goal Italy had conceded in the group games so far and if they held on to the result, Scotland would move top by one point with four games to go, including Italy away which would surely be their hardest game.
The final whistle blew and shirts were exchanged on the pitch between the down-hearted Italians and the delighted Scots. Bradley made a point of going over to the Italy bench and giving Sr Cantonelli a hug.
‘Well done Bradley. That was another great performance. I don’t want to see the replay of that goal though’ He smiled. ‘Listen, did you have any thoughts about what I said the other day about AC Milan? They can offer you a fantastic deal if you were interested.’ Sr Cantonelli continued.
‘It’s very tempting, to be honest, but it has to go through the right channels. I don’t want to get involved in tapping up and I shouldn’t think AC Milan need any adverse publicity either. I’m happy at Arsenal, you know that, and I think I’m too young just now to even think about playing in another country. I have to say no, for now. Thanks anyway.’
‘I take your point Bradley, but things will change and there will come a time soon when you have to look for a new challenge. Let me make sure that new challenge is with my contacts when that time comes. You will know when the time is right. Now, go and join your team mates and celebrate your victory. We will get our revenge in Italy.’ He laughed and patted Bradley on the back.
Bradley joined the rest of the team in the dressing room where they were already celebrating a famous win. Jimmy Anderson needed to bring them back to reality.
‘Ok, ok, calm down lads. That was a great win and I’m double pleased how you all played tonight. If you play that way all the time then nobody will beat us.’ A loud cheer went round the room. ‘However, we are not there yet; there’s still a few games left including the Italy away game which is going to be the real test. Let’s not kid ourselves, they will want to qualify and want revenge for tonight. I suspect they will try to kick us off the pitch rather than beat us by skill alone, so don’t forget that. In the meantime, let’s celebrate this one and look forward to beating Wales in Cardiff at the weekend. Well done lads!’
The team gathered their stuff and headed outside to board the coach that would take them back to their hotel, passing through a crowd of fans on the way, all wanting to shake the teams’ hands and tell them they were proud of them. They were due to fly to Cardiff the next day so there wasn’t going to be much chance of Bradley seeing Jessie before they left unfortunately. He didn’t know if they were going to head for Cardiff to watch that game, but he figured one night supporting the ‘Old Enemy’ would be more than enough for Barry.
Bradley was exhausted after the adrenaline rush of the game and went straight to bed as soon as he got back to the hotel. He called Jessie to see how her dad enjoyed the game and how he missed her before going to sleep and dreaming of holding the Euro trophy high above his head in a couple of years’ time. Just a few more games until their place in the finals was assured. Surely, nothing could go wrong.