Chapter 1: The Cup Final
“Eighty-eight minutes gone in this pulsating match. Aston Villa, who fell behind twice earlier in the match, are now on the ascendancy. The crowd really getting behind them now.”
“They’ve had a fantastic season haven’t they Geoff.”
“That they have. Winning the league, and reaching the cup final in young manager Jamie Smith’s first year in charge. Here comes Ridgewell now, on the left-had side. Looks inside for Juninho.”
“What a season he’s had. That big money move from Middlesbrough has really paid off hasn’t it? People doubted Smith’s wisdom when he signed Juninho, but he has certainly proved his critics wrong.”
“Juninho turns, under pressure from Gerrard, Liverpool’s talisman whose first half goal seems a lifetime away now.”
“Juninho finds Barry, the captain. Barry to Hendrie.”
“This Villa side can really move the ball around can’t they? They’re making full use of this wide Wembley pitch.”
“Liverpool defending in numbers here, they know they’ve just got to hold on for a few more minutes. Hendrie moves the ball from left to right.”
“Those Liverpool players look tired in the Wembley heat. These cup finals can sometimes become a war of attrition in the second-half.”
“Solano beats Finnan for pace, crosses it in. Headed away by Carragher.”
“A solid header, just what Liverpool needed.”
“Villa have it once more with Barry again. The crowd getting right behind them. Barry, passes it to McPhail, the substitute who turned this game on his head.”
“Say what you like about Jamie Smith, he always seems to get his substitutions spot-on.”
“Returns the ball to Barry now, who gets the better of Murphy. Barry plays it through. Vassell is onside! Can he win it for Villa? Vassell Shoots!”
“Jamie, time for tea.”
“Just a moment mum.”
The afternoon sunshine and the roar of the Wembley crowd suddenly replaced by the sound of a Vauxhall Astra and some children shouting in the street outside.
Jamie went downstairs, the moment gone.
“Why are you wearing a suit Jamie?”
“No reason,” Jamie didn’t want to admit that he always put a suit on for cup final games, it helped him get into the atmosphere of the match. His white shirt was covered in sweat from Aston Villa’s incredible second-half comeback against Liverpool. “Was just checking it still fits.”
“There’s a letter here for you,” his mum said.
Jamie could see the letterhead, his heart started racing. ‘South Birmingham Polytechnic’ was printed in dark red, its logo instantly recognizable from the hours and hours Jamie had spent on the school’s website, dreaming. Dreaming of a place at the school and a chance to study football management analytics. Dreaming of studying under the legendary Professor John Greenwood, of becoming an expert in football analytics, of getting head-hunted by Chelsea or Arsenal, or getting hired by Aston Villa and helping them win the league for the first time since 1981.
“Aren’t you going to open it?”
Jamie looked at the letter, he wanted to rip it open right there and then.
“I’ll open it later,” Jamie said, trying to act like the letter was no big deal, fully aware that his attempt to be nonchalant was undermined by his voice.
“So, what are your plans for the summer?” his mum asked, “You know, something productive, not just playing video games.”
“Soccer Coach 2003 is more than a video game,” Jamie told his mum for what must have been the hundredth time, “You know that clubs use the statistics on the game to make real life decisions about who to sign. The great Professor Greenwood actually used the game to predict that Wayne Rooney would be Everton’s star player this season two whole years ago. If teams had followed his advice, they could’ve made millions.”
“Rooney. He’s in the England squad mum. He’ll be a household name this time next year, just you wait.”
“Even so,” said his mum, “You can’t spend all summer locked up in your room all day, how will that look on your CV? Don’t look at me like that, you know how your dad feels strongly about this too. He’s arranged an internship for you at Grey’s Accountancy in town, it’ll be a great experience.”
Jamie glanced at his letter again; his dad had wanted him to follow in his footsteps and study economics; to get a safe, secure, well-paid job like him. To be just another man in a suit, just like him.
“Urgh, Grey’s Accountancy. Why would you want me to be locked up there?”
“I told you, it would be good for you, you know many companies value summer work experience, I’ve never heard of a company valuing ‘video game experience’. Anyway, what’s the point of video games about football, if you went outside and played football for real every once in a while you would at least get some fresh air and make some friends.”
“You know I can’t play football, just look at my belly. Have you ever seen a footballer with a belly like this? If there was a crowd watching me, they’d probably sing ‘who ate all the pies’ or something; anyway the other lads just tease me or make me play in goal, I’m useless in goal cos I can’t wear my glasses, but they make me play there anyway, then blame me every time I let one in.”
“Being in goal is better than just wasting your time on those video games, and I’m sure Carla would be more impressed if you saved a penalty or something than if you just stared at your computer all day.”
“Carla doesn’t care what I do with my free time, she’s cool like that.” Jamie replied, wondering if his mum even knew what a goalkeeper was, she probably only liked them ’cos they had funny coloured shirts or moustaches like David Seaman. “As long as I spend time with her when I do see her, she doesn’t care.”
“Anyway, I heard that the accountancy firm pays some pocket money for the internship,” Jamie’s mum said, trying to change the subject, “You could even buy a nice gift for Carla, she’d like that, wouldn’t she?”
Jamie didn’t reply, his mum didn’t know what Carla was like, what kind of things she liked. Not all girls wanted cheap jewellery from one of those generic accessory shops in town. If Carla was anything like other girls, she wouldn’t have given him a second glance. That much should be obvious to everyone. Anyway, she might be studying far away at the other end of the country from him next year, it would be better to spend the summer with her, rather than at a stuffy accountancy firm. What was the point of doing an internship in accountancy, he would never want to be an accountant. He would rather be a sewage worker than an accountant.
“Your dad will be back from his trip to Germany in two days, make sure you show your appreciation to him, he had to pull a lot of strings to get you this internship you know. We are only thinking of your future, we want to give you the best chance possible in life.”
Jamie finished his meal without saying another word, he knew his parents were just trying to look out for him, the thing is, they just didn’t know him. They just couldn’t comprehend that it was even possible to have a career in football analytics, or that this was something that he was actually good at. He went back upstairs, still in his sweat-stained cup-final suit. Jamie decided that, like the FA Cup final, the opening of the letter that would change his life was a momentous occasion; an occasion more-than-worthy of the suit. He kept the suit on.
He knew what the letter would say, he had easily met all of South Birmingham’s requirements, and his application letter was a tour de force. He glanced at his computer. Full-time - Aston Villa 3: Liverpool 2. He knew it was destiny, today was the day when his life would finally start, when he would get out of suburban boredom and accountancy drudgery. He knew that once his parents saw his acceptance letter that they would change their mind and realize that he was actually good at what he loved. They would realize that he was now, finally, on his way towards changing the face of football forever. He just knew.
Jamie’s palms were sweating as he held the letter in his hands. He had no reason to doubt its contents, just like a striker had no reason to doubt his ability to put the ball in the bottom corner from twelve yards. But when you’re faced with 70,000 fans, with the chance of making history, then suddenly the goal seems a lot smaller, the ’keeper seems a lot bigger, 12 yards seem a lot further. It suddenly seems comprehensible that you might actually miss. Jamie tried to control his breathing; his heart pounding, his sweat-stained suit becoming even more so. Slowly, carefully, excruciatingly, he opened the envelope…