How to Score (On and Off the Pitch)

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Chapter 55

If the Emirates stadium had a capacity of 100,000 it would still have disappointed thousands of fans who wanted to get a ticket for the second leg against Barcelona. It had sold out in minutes and tickets on the black market were changing hands for thousands of pounds even though most of them would be fakes. It was a tout’s paradise with so many desperate supporters and foreign visitors eager to hand over vast sums of money to see what would be Arsenal’s biggest game of the season. Police were all over the place and managed to nick quite a few touts but only after loads of people had been stung, only finding out their tickets were forgeries when they tried to access the stadium. Of course, finding these touts after they had been duped was a pointless task. They never stayed in the same place for fear that unsatisfied customers would come looking for them to get a refund. Some of the punters could get quite nasty if they caught the touts, not that it happened that often.

The atmosphere in the stadium was electric. This could be the most humiliating result in Barcelona’s history if Arsenal played like they did the previous week. They had a fully fit squad to pick from and it was likely that they would field the same team. This was confirmed as the players marched on to the pitch to a tremendous cheer.

However, things didn’t go completely to plan and Arsenal soon found themselves 1-0 down which gave Barcelona some hope, although it was still an impossible task. There is a school of thought that says every time a team sack their manager, the team goes on an unbeaten run of games, and this game could uphold that myth. They were certainly playing a lot better than the first leg.

Bradley found himself tightly marked throughout the first half and hardly got hold of the ball as three players would close him down every time he got it. He was also being kicked up in the air at every opportunity; they obviously knew that Bradley was the heartbeat of the team. Stifle him and you’ve stopped Arsenal from playing their usual game. It was up to Bradley to do something about it, as Silvio pointed out at half time. He was told to let go of the ball earlier before they had time to get to him and that would create space for other players.

He followed the manager’s instructions and found that it did the trick, although he then became the victim of some late tackles which had earned the perpetrators yellow cards.

With the extra time on the ball, Arsenal’s attack could be more creative and it wasn’t long before they equalised, quickly followed by a second goal to make it 2-1 to Arsenal, 7-1 on aggregate. It was game over as far as Barcelona were concerned and you could see the look of resignation on their players’ faces.

The game ended with that score and ignited the crowd who were relieved in some ways, annoyed that they didn’t see another five goal thrashing, and pure elation at making it to the final which would be against Juventus in a couple of weeks’ time, in a repeat of the previous year’s final clash.

Bradley went straight to the physio after the treatment he had received on the pitch. Dirty bastards, he thought as he looked at the purple lumps starting to appear on his legs, and the black eye that was the result of an elbow from their centre half. No way he would play for them if he ever left Arsenal.

They won their last few league games to finish with a Premier League record points haul of 105 and they were also the top scorers in the league. Just two more games to play, both finals, then he could head to his villa in Mijas for some well-earned rest.

The FA Cup Final went to plan with Arsenal being too good for Manchester City and coming out 3-1 winners. Bradley had managed to score another two goals before being subbed with 20 minutes to go to save his bruised legs for the Champions League final, and was awarded with yet another Man of the Match award. That was the treble put to bed, now it was time to make history and add the Champions League trophy to the list which no team had ever done before.

The final was to be played at the Amsterdam Arena on the Saturday following the FA Cup final so they wouldn’t have far to travel. Bradley had never been to Amsterdam before, but heard it was popular with people who like to smoke something stronger than cigarettes freely, some stunning art museums and canals. It was quite unique as a city and he hoped he would see some of it as they were heading there on the Thursday morning and knowing Silvio was keen to promote a relaxed atmosphere, he would let them loose on the town for a few hours like he did in Barcelona.

He and Jessie went out for a quiet meal on the Wednesday night at their local trattoria where they were guaranteed discretion and could enjoy some good Italian food.

Bradley had tried phoning his mum earlier that evening to see how she was but she sounded wasted again and wasn’t making any sense so he curtailed the call at the earliest opportunity. He wished she would let him help her get off the booze; he hated seeing her like this. His dad had phoned as well and sounded the complete opposite. He had embraced the healthy California lifestyle and had given up red meat and strong alcohol, now sticking to fresh vegetables, fish and chicken, all healthily prepared by Lucy and nothing stronger than the odd glass of Californian Chardonnay. What a difference. He remembered when it was the other way around when his mum hardly drank, ate healthily and exercised while his dad enjoyed boozy nights with colleagues and clients in the curry houses.

Jessie and Bradley held hands as much as they could while they were eating their meal, at least with pasta you could get by using just a fork. They were getting to know each other more and more now and falling more and more in love.

The conversation got around to the number of European clubs that would likely be making an offer for Bradley once the season ended. He could tell that she wasn’t keen to move to another country, but she promised she wouldn’t stand in his way if a silly offer came in for him. He explained that he had an idea Arsenal were ready to accept such a silly offer, probably from AC Milan or Barcelona and there might not be much he could do about it. His agent, Archie, had already told him the rumours and it could be a done deal, depending on how much Bradley would be paid. And Archie’s share, of course.

Jessie’s face dropped when Bradley explained the situation. She would have to worry about what happens to them once it happens. There was plenty of time to spend together before that happened. Her plate of unfinished pasta was pushed to one side. Bradley immediately regretted mentioning the rumours to Jessie, it had completely ruined the evening and he cursed himself for being so stupid.

‘I’m sorry, Jess. I didn’t mean to upset you like this, don’t worry about it, it may not happen this summer. Anyway, after the kicking I got from Barcelona last week I’m not sure I would be interested in joining them. I’m happy at Arsenal and ideally I would like to spend another couple of seasons with them before going abroad. I’m not old enough for such a challenge yet, although my agent thinks I am.’

‘I’m sorry, too.’ Jessie replied tearfully. ‘I wouldn’t want to stand in your way if it happened. Just remember, I will do what you think is best and support you. I know you have to make the most of your career; it’s short anyway and if you got a bad injury you would have to quit without having experienced playing for someone like that.’

They finished their meal and as Bradley paid the bill, the waiter helped Jessie on with her jacket. His Audi was parked just outside and it would take them a good hour to drive back to Loughton, most of the journey in complete silence. This probably made Bradley all the more determined to resist such a big move. Jessie meant the world to him and he wasn’t about to let her down.

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