Friendlies are for cowards: Forest for the Trees 2
In Chapter Two, we beef a Brazilian.
Before we get on, you must read Chapter One first.
4PM, WILFORD LANE, JULY 12TH
He’s a big guy, this Brazilian. He towers over me, his eyes glowering. But, as I say in my Hinge profile, height is just a number.
It’s constitution that counts. The willingness to stand behind one’s ideals.
Unfortunately, Felipe Augusto de Almeida Monteiro was raised in Sao Paulo. I was raised in Reading. He is bigger than me, older than me, has played under Diego Simeone, and I am very scared. My constitution has never been more wobbly.
“Squad player?” he says, flecks of spit moving like darts through the air and dropping into my coffee. “Is this a joke?”
“I think…I think it reflects your position within the team,” I say.
My logic is solid, my execution questionable. Without warning, I fiddled with Felipe’s status in the team, relegating him from key to squad player. Look, I’m trying to build this team around a core of youth - this is SCOUTED, not AGED - and I have many options at centre-back I’d like to explore. Murillo is a guaranteed starter, he’s too fun. Omobamidele looks talented and has impressed so far, and Scott McKenna and Moussa Niakhaté are prime age. Plus, Felipe’s contract expires next summer. He’s 33, and respected, yes - but he won’t get the minutes befitting his nomenclature.
These thoughts fly through my mind as he leans over my desk, eyes popping, knuckles white. “I am not a squad player,” he growls. “I am a key player. Key.”
Something comes over me. A grit. The desperate masculine desire to orate.
“You were. You’re not anymore. It’s time to let go, big man. It’s over. Well, it’s not over - you’ll still play a bit, because I need you. But more importantly, I need your steel. The wisdom of a man who’s done it all, been sent off in friendlies, been sent off in the League, been sent off in the Champion’s League, who’s started fights with teenagers for fun. I need you to be a teacher. A key teacher.” I hold out my hand. “Whaddya say?”
I cannot print his response in these pages.
The incident was not isolated, as much as I’d hoped it might be. In the six months since he’d arrived and in just a dozen or so appearances, Felipe had become an integral part of the dressing room. I’d underestimated the strength of his personality. Or I’d just not paid enough attention, which I guess is more likely.
His gravity pulled people towards him and they orbited like space junk, annoying little obstacles I needed to bat away before I threw him out of the squad. Unfortunately, those irritating obstacles were human beings I also needed to stay happy and confident enough to win football matches. I thought football management was about moving dots across a board and photoshoots and shouting epithets at rich teenagers, but now I’m psychoanalysing grown men.
I swallow my pride and decide on a tactful approach. I think, if I’m smart about it, I can knock two pieces of space junk out the sky with one stone; I can calm Felipe down and squash my beef with my supposed ‘captain’, Joe Worrall - he who felt hoping for a decent cup run was ‘unfair’ on the boys - at the same time. I could beat my chest and move my pieces and establish my dominance here with one slick move. It’s time to play the game.
I ask Worrall (we’re not on first-name terms, let’s be honest) to speak to Felipe for me. He agrees. In fact, I think he respects me for asking. Step back and behold a master at work.
I don’t know what Worrall says to him, the idiot, but things get so much worse. Felipe storms back into my office wielding apoplectic rage and holy fury, apparently disgusted I’d have someone else do my dirty work. Fair point. I’m out of ideas, so I pull out old faithful: sweep the problem under the carpet and hope it goes away.
5PM, WILFORD LANE, JULY 12TH
Absolutely exhausted by treating thirty-year-olds like they’re children, I return to football. I have a squad to build. I can figure out how to manage it later.
I’m still hamstrung by my boss’ historical disregard for financial sustainability, so I hardly bother to look at the transfer market. Instead, I notice a report on a on youngster who’s currently out on loan.
The coaches are particularly excited by Alex Mighten, a young winger at Belgian side KV Kortrijk. He’s American, but I try not to let that bias me against him - I am frighteningly short on depth in that position. If Callum Hudson-Odoi or Anthony Elanga get so much as a light cold, I’m in trouble. I jot down his name and move on - I’ll need to get Llew to do a proper deep-dive on these youngsters sometime soon.
I’m torn from my contemplation by perhaps the most exciting email I’ve received yet. The moguls from the Middle-East have answered my prayers - they’ve bought Cheikhou Kouyate! I salivate at the thought of adding a UAE-funded warchest to my financial arsenal, until I see the price we agreed with Al-Ain: £1.7m. He’ll probably be given a car over in Dubai worth more than that.
I do what any self-respecting manager would do and Google his name. Transfermarkt tells me his current market value is €1m and we signed him for free a year ago. I smile. I’m a wheelin’, dealin’, market-twistin’ maestro after all. Way to get ripped off, suckas.
I do write myself a note to check a player’s value before I agree a price for them next time, just to be safe.
The last friendly we played was high-stakes: a pre-season blood feud with inter-city neighbours Notts County. With more warm-up games on the horizon, I decide I want to ride that wave. Wins begets winners. After Worrall’s pathetic outburst revealed the squad’s underlying aversion to winning stuff, I knew I needed to mould them into killers.
I tell the boys ‘friendly’ is a soft word, for cowards. They must instead use ‘deathmatch’ or risk being fined.
Our first deathmatch is against a team called Banbury United. I have no idea who Banbury are and I do not care to find out. All I know is they must be crushed beneath the iron wheels of Forest as we march toward the season. Banbury first, Manchester City next. Blimey. I put out the strongest team possible.
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My assistant, Alan Tate, catches me before I give my pre-game team talk. The staff are concerned, he says, that I’ve chosen a full-strength team of millionaire professionals to play a non-professional side. Oops.
What unfolds can only be described as a crime against humanity. By half-time we are 9-0 up and one of the Banbury lads has to leave for his shift at Tesco. I try to send Elanga and Hudson-Odoi with him but they’re having way too much fun to worry about their fitness. I look at the bench to notice I forgot to bring half of my subs. There are no wide players at all. I sub everyone off except CHO and Ant, who both play the full 90. Gonzalo Montiel scores the most important penalty of his career to date. Callum is taking the absolute piss and scores a trivela to wrap things up. Good job too, because Banbury were fighting to get back into it. In the end we squeeze out the victory at 16-0.
Unperturbed by the generational trauma we’ve just inflicted on a sleepy town in Oxfordshire, we march onto our next deathmatch: a game against Chaves, from Portugal’s Primeira Liga. Finally, some decent opposition. They have a guy named Pires, even, so they must be good.
To add to the occasion, we have a new arrival: Morgan Gibbs-White is finally back from international duty. I shake his hand vigorously, hoping to transmit through that single interaction how much I love him and need him to lead this team. I think I come on a tad too intense, but he goes straight into the starting eleven regardless. Danilo - Andrey Santos - MGW. Could this be the midfield to win the Premier League?
Not on this showing. The midfield is sloppy, constantly give the ball away, and Chaves’ resolute mid-block proves impossible to play through. Montiel misses a penalty this time - good job nobody asks him to take important ones (this is the last time I’ll make this stupid joke, promise). The game ends 1-1.
Finally, we meet an Italian team who, for legal reasons, I must refer to only as Brianza. I’m excited to test our mettle in another deathmatch with a stern first-division opponent. This time, I have what I think is my full-strength eleven, the team I’d like to start the fast-approaching first Premier League game of the season. Finally, our fury can be unleashed.
We’re 2-0 down in twenty minutes. At half-time I go sicko mode, reminding the boys of the stakes and that the Premier League is looming. They return to the pitch fired up. Luckily, Brianza are from Italy, so one of their players gets sent off. I scream at the boys to go for the kill. Deathmatch.
Ibrahim Sangare scores an absolute screamer. Then Elanga strikes. And finally, in a slick move, we string together some venomous passes, move the ball into the box and cut it back for Elanga to seal the win - and he does.
Slowly, slowly, the boys are learning what it means to be killers.
And that’s it. The deathmatches are done. The Premier League is but a week away.
4:07PM, BRIANZA, AUGUST 2ND
Buoyed by the victory, I meet the press. I’m giddy, drunk on victory, on power, on Morgan Gibbs-White.
And so, I make a my first apocalyptic mistake.
“Felipe hasn’t been involved in any of these games,” one journalist asks. “And there are rumours he’s unsettled. Can you comment on his position in the squad?”
I think about his angry spit plopping into my coffee. I think about his demeanour in every team talk, where he sulks regardless of what I say. I think about Joe Worrall and his complete inability to salvage the situation.
“Easy,” I say. “Felipe is being a little baby. If he wants to play more, he should play better. He needs to force my hand, but he’d rather run around crying. It’s that simple.”
The next day, my face is plastered over the internet, across every NFFC fan blog and website. My Twitter is going wild on the plane ride home.
It hasn’t stopped when we reach Wilford Lane. Into that maelstrom of pinging notifications march Joe Worrall and Ryan Yates, the squad’s two most influential men. They sit opposite my desk without my invitation and rest their arms on the table. I get the distinct impression this is what it’s like meeting two disappointed mafia bosses.
I repeat my line from last night: I’m more than happy to give Felipe the playing time he wants, but he has to earn it. There are no freebies here. And I’m not going to stall the careers of my young defenders for the sake of one man’s tantrum.
Yates and Worrall look at each other. They sigh and stand in synchrony.
Worrall locks eyes with me. “You’ve lost the dressing room,” he says.
Then they both leave me alone, in silence, to contemplate the storm I’ve created.
We actually do some serious SCOUTED stuff, I promise.
The Premier League begins at Brentford.
Will Felipegate derail our season before it’s even begun?
Find out next week on FOREST FOR THE TREES.
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