He looks to the sky before returning to his men like an oracle searching for an omen. What is this burden they must carry? The gods turning the fate of men on a jealous whim is ancient history but still he looks for a sign. He sees the men watching him, rubbing the wet from their brows and coughing and spitting like miners.
'There's nowt up there worth bothering yer head abowt, Squire', says one.
'An' even if there were He's not likely to stop pissing on us is he?' says Ward.
So then Squire Albert Warburton, for that was his Christian name, and this was his captaincy, strokes his tache and looks in every man's direction.
'Jack', he says raising a pointed finger to the heavens 'Do you detect a break in the clouds?'
'Aye,' says he, 'What you thinking?'
'We're kicking up hill in the second half,' says Albert, 'The ball will stick in the mud when sun comes out. It won't travel far on grass. We should pass it long. Don't get too close but spread the thing out from right to left. Left to right. Lads, look for me, look for Jack and we'll find you space to run onto.'
They nod and spit, cough and stamp. Something has got into them. Call it what you like but they were up against devils and not just the ones that the Coach had been drilling out of them. Druids was the away team; sorcerers conjured up from a Welsh village not yet seen on any map. Raised on ewe's blood and raw leeks they hacked our cotton men to pieces on the field. In the first half the goal against them had summoned their fire. The mud and the rain sucking them all down, mixing trails of blood with the fibre of the field like warp and weft but the Druids had huddled and rushed. Rushed and kicked high and long and scored. 1 -1.
Albert puts his arms around the men and gathers them round for a final word from the Coach, Jack Hunter.
'We'll get the best of this lot,' says Jack, 'They've got no puff left. Wherever you are on field I'll be covering back. If you run into a wall turn back and give it me. I'll spread it wide like Albert said. And you chase it.'
'Chase it like a Taffy chases his flock' chips in Hacking. Some laugh.
'Don't rile 'em up. They're up for a fight,' says Dewhurst.
'Aye,' says a few of them and the laughing stops. They all stand as the umpire waves at them to enter the field
'Stay tight,' says Albert, ' but remember to move out quick like when Hunter has it.'
The crowd, sensing that the game is to begin again cheer and shout oaths into the damp air. Even the ladies and gentleman raise some applause. Then one of the Olympic men halts to state the obvious, 'It's stopped raining sir'.
'So it has', says Albert, 'Let's see if their spell has worn off.'
They kick off and the Druids come at them in packs but hunting the ball is no good to them. Albert lays off to Hunter and Hunter switches the play out wide. Yates runs onto the ball as it lands flat like a lead weight. He centres it to Dewhurst who dashes and belts it between post and keeper. Two-One. Very quickly two becomes three as the Druids rush forward with the ball and leave no-one on the left. Yates runs through from a rebounded pass and has the speed of a hare to score the third. Down, down, down are the Druids. They have the looks of men a long way from home. The Druids lose patience and pass to Hunter. He gives to Albert who has already heard the hooves of thunder behind him giving it back to Hunter to chip over the top. It splits them open and the pass lands with Matthews who centres for Dewhurst to grab another. The contest is as good as dead and all that's left is to keep the Druids at arms length. The umpire calls time. At the end Albert leads them off. 'Well played. Well played. Unlucky lad. Well played.' The men are dog tired and not so jubilant as victors might be until they see that the crowd will not part for them as before. Instead they are surrounded and each man receives a touch to the head or the shoulder, a desperate lunge towards them, the gentlemen of the crowd grinning and burning with zeal as if they had turned out to meet not players but men riding back from battle in the Zululand. Time was when they were nothing but drinkers in the The Masons Arms. Nobodies men and with nothing but their shillings and the clothes on their backs to lose. Now they are the toast of every landlord in the town.
They change in a room reserved for them behind the public bar with only a curtain raised to hide their nakedness. Albert Warburton pulls the curtain aside exposing his head. 'Is there no ale for these men landlord? We're gasping in here.' The bar is a sea of bearded and ruddy faced gentlemen and an Arthurian mist rises from a dozen pipes and hovers over everything. The landlady's cheeks glow like a red rose and Albert thinks she might have missed what he said. Before he can repeat his plea a seasoned old man seated by the fire chirps up, 'Give them all a drink from me. They won their bet fair and square.' He rises and hands a crisp note over to her.
'Much obliged to you Mr Bramham,' she says and begins pulling at the pumps with her butcher's arms.
Recognizing the secretary of the Olympic Club and content that his men's needs are taken care of Albert gives a wink to the gentleman and puts his head back round the curtain.
'Diddy ged it' says Hacking. 'He's got deep pockets has our secretary for a bloke with short arms.'
'He bet we wouldn't score more than three,' says Albert.
'Thank the lord' says Dewhurst, 'Me balls think me throats cut.'
Albert begins dressing, keeping a new suit of clothes to one side and pulling on the same shirt and trousers from the working week. The bitter sweet smell of hops and tobacco permeates everything. He pulls the curtain back again and goes to retrieve the winnings.
'Thank yee kindly! No more than the lads deserve mind!' he boasts as he collects a pair of jugs.
'A fine victory my boys' says the old man at the fireplace, 'Best team in Lancashire by far. On behalf of the committee and Mr Yates may I pass on our great thanks for elevating the club to new heights.'
Coughing and spluttering 'hoorays' and 'here here' reverberate around the room.
At this Bramham raises his glass 'To the Olympic team and all who support them!'
Another shout goes up. Albert considers for a moment whether Bramham is referring to the money he stumped up for the team to have new boots.
'Here's to the good old secretary,' he yells, and then much more quietly he looks him in the eye 'Next time up is the semi-final. You couldn't see to it that our fares are covered could you? Maybe a hotel?'
'I hope the men are saving for the trip. After all it's them that gets the glory. I can't keep going to Mr Yates for more money,' Bramham replies.
Albert nods and hears himself saying 'Indeed. Each man gets the glory he deserves.'
Before he can turn back to the curtain Bramham touches him on the shoulder, 'I'll do what I can. But the longer this competition goes on the more it'll cost. Don't think I won't help but try not to get the men's hopes up eh?'
Albert, carrying jugs of beer on a tray sets the lot down in the middle of the room. Jack Hunter begins to pour, 'Enjoy! Drink today lads but from tomorrow we're no better than Sally Army abstainers.'
'Ah come off it! You try working with the cotton in yer throat all day and not drinkin,' says Matthews.
'What's wrong with water?' says Albert.
'It's not that captain,' says Hacking, 'If you 'ad a face like his you'd take to drink an all.'
'Now lads,' says Jack, 'When we've got our hands on the trophy you can fill it with as much beer as you like. If we win I doubt there'd be a landlord in town that will let you pay for your own again. What do you say Captain?'
Albert strokes his tache and speaks loud enough for those beyond the dressing room to hear. 'Aye, Jack's right. Celebrate tonight and then get home to rest. You've earned it. I've just spoke to our secretary and he's persuaded Mr Yates to pay for the trip to the semi-final. Three cheers for Bramham! Hip hip!' Hooray! Hooray! He hands out a drink and a gentle slap of the shoulder to each and reserves nothing for himself.
The rain it soaks them every day but the bath comes once in a blue moon. Not for Albert who abhors dirt. With unchristian haste he takes his leave of everybody at the public house and clops his way to the public bath, exchanging one set of intoxicating fluids for another. For Albert there is no greater necessity than being clean and purifying the body in water. Not that he lives in a world of dreams and ignorance of the impurity of things but to strive is to win and to win at life is also to look the part. In the gloom of the late afternoon he hobbles to the town's Turkish baths. 'First class' he says paying the entrance fee at the turnstile and taking a clean towel and a bar of soap from the guard in attendance. The guard eyes him suspiciously but Albert presses on. 'I hope thas not going to be washing those dirty boot in 'ere, the gentlemen will not like it!' yells the guard but it is too late. He is gone. Already he can sense the lapping and the swirling of the water in the pools ahead. He finds a compartment and hangs up his clean clothes before stripping down and wrapping himself in the towel. Before he leaves he inspects his body. There is a heavy bruise to his left ankle and it has already begun to expand in circumference. His knees are scabbing from cuts and as he runs a hand through his shaggy head of hair he feels it matted together from a cut to the back of the head. Limping over to the entrance to the Calidarium he sniffs and coughs as his lungs encounter the first waves of steam emanating from the doorway. On opening the door he enters the fog and remains still to allow his eyes to adjust to the white mists. As always he feels as though he is going to faint. He doesn't sense anyone in the room and feels for the tiled embankments that surround the wall, somewhere to give his shattered body some respite. 'Ahhhhhhh! ' he exhales. 'Ffffffffff,' The heat beginning to work on his skin. He feels his lungs and his chest beginning to expand. 'The game is over', he thinks. 'But the game will never be over. There is always the next one and what then? How to win it. Can I be the one? Master plumber. Fitted many a fine bath to the houses of the rich. Nothing finer. And if I can work a set of pipes and joints I can bloody well work out a team. But what do I know about it? The game passes so quickly, it's as if there's no time.' His mind wanders to Sunday and the daughters of the vicar and in particular the eldest one Rose. 'Will she know me for an Olympian now and more than what she thought I was?' He feels a tug at the towel around his waist and opens his eyes but there is no-one there. It has fallen to the ground. Albert rubs his eyes and shakes his head. He sits upright feeling the sinews and muscles of his calves and thighs and presses them to find points of pain, points of weakness. Then he takes the towel from the floor and throws it over his shoulder like a cape. He treads carefully towards the circular pool of crisp, flat water in the room adjacent. He knows he must face it but something about its depth and the clear view to the blue tiles at the bottom causes his skin to quiver. He stands on tip toes at the edge feeling the cold water beginning to rise to his chest, tilts and then lands with an almighty whoosh followed by a roar.
Tuesday there's a knock on the door. It's Hunter. 'We've got a problem,' he says and without pausing pushes his way into the front room.
'Do you know what time of day it is?' says Albert.
'Time for work I'd say.' and Jack goes to the back to see if there's any hot tea.
'How were you feeling after the game Jack?' asks Albert.
'Could be better. You took a battering,' says Jack who pours from the kettle into a cup and takes a slurp of warm tea without milk, 'You'll learn. Best stay out of it. Use your noddle.'
Albert invites him to sit down in front of the fire.
Jack pokes his finger into the cold ash and says, 'Do you ever light that thing!'
'Only when I'm expecting guests' says Albert, 'Tell me what do you think of the healing properties of water?'
Jack looks up from his cup and says 'That's what I've been telling 'em. You need to keep replenishing liquids. We need to have more water on the pitch. When I played for England the best players were Scots and you never saw none of them drink beer after a game.'
'Na.' replies the Squire, 'That's not what I meant. I meant baths. Hot and cold water. My body was fit for nowt when I came off the pitch on Saturday. I went to the Turkish baths and the ankle was as good as new. I swear. Look, two days and the stiffness is gone.'
Hunter puts his cup of tea down and asks if he can take a look. Albert, who is barefoot, pulls his trousers up to reveal nothing more than a couple of scratches.
'And the rest of your body?' asks Hunter.
'Good as new. Ready to start work again today.'
'If you say so but that's what I came to talk to you about. We've got a problem. The semi. It'll be against one of favourites to win it. Old Carthusians or Old Etonians doesn't matter. I've played alongside these men and they're a world apart, some would say a breed apart. They're used to winning. They expect it. Listen can I use some of your sugar?'
Hunter picks out eleven sugar lumps from the bowl and lines them up.
'This is how Old Etonians play. Five forwards. Three in the middle. Two at the back. They follow the ball like so.'
He brings the sugar cubes closer to one side of the table and brings the backs and the forwards close together.
'This one loses possession and the ball is usually played out for a throw or back to the players following up. Then they begin their attacks again. If you spread yourself out across the field you leave gaps for them to dribble into. Press too close and you give them an outlet down one of the sides for a quick forward.'
'So why don't we play our forwards right up against them?' asks Albert.
'You can't. Offside. Plus you need some of your forwards back here to defend and plug the gaps. We're gonna need to practice squeezing their space and then spreading out again quickly when we have possession. We're going to need training. Once a week after hours or on a Sunday isn't enough. We need to get them off work on full pay or as near as damn it.'
Albert has a few jobs to do for the aldermen at the town hall before walking in his overalls to the church of Saint Mary's. He kicks a stone over the cobbles and watches it bounce within an inch of the lamp post. He curses. 'Is that a sign?' He is a privately religious fellow of sorts. He keeps his views very close to his chest but there is something within him that concedes to the notion of a supreme being and some such order in the world that he doesn't believe it's within the wit of men, even clever ones to discover. He never felt for a moment that praying to intercede in worldly affairs meant anything. It didn't rescue his kith and kin from early graves so why should it be? But he senses an order in the world that is beyond anyone's control. At the church he pushes the cranking wooden door open and steps into the aisle where each step of his hobnail boots echo in the cavernous opening. There are several women praying together near the alter. A vicar ministers to them. He waits at the rear and watches. The vicar sees him and nods that he will approach him when all is well with his flock. Several minutes later he strides in Albert's direction.
'May I help you?' he says.
'Hope so father. I hope you won't mind me intruding on more important matters.'
'What it is my son? There are no matters that the Lord does not mind about. No trouble is any trouble to him.'
'Aye, well. My name is Albert Warburton. I have the honour of being the captain of the Olympic soccer team.'
'Olympic,' says the priest, 'Well, I never. So you're the captain are you? The great hope of all who love sport. I'd have asked you to join us if I had recognized you. I used to play for my old school.'
'Yes?' says Albert in surprise, 'what position?'
'Keeper,' replies the vicar, 'I used to feel as though every goal against me was like a dagger to the heart. A terrible sin to be cleansed from the soul. I played for what eight or nine seasons defending that goal. Administering unction is far less nerve wracking.'
'Well, you know a thing or two about football. The thing is we could do with some support before the semi final and I came to ask you if you could mention us to your congregation.'
The smile falls from the vicar like a gull to the ocean. 'I'm afraid that's out of the question. The payment of players is expressly against the laws of the game. Any donations we receive from our congregation are to support our work with the poor.,,'
Albert nods and knows the ways of these people. He's been in and out of their houses fitting pipes and leaks enough to know how they think. What with their education and their fine things they believe they have a right to a sermon. 'I should have been clearer father. It's not payments for the players that I had in mind.'
'No' says the vicar 'Then you will be content with our prayers I take it?'
'I shall. Could I ask you to pray for the owners and managers who employ our players, many of them come to your church I believe, especially the man who has supported us over the years. A Mr Yates. He's a modest man. Doesn't get the credit he deserves but if there's one thing he'll always do is give his men time off work to attend Christian activities. Now, if others were to follow his example might we not see fewer of our men succumbing to the drink and other distractions? A winning team will encourage others to take up the sport...'
The vicar looks carefully into Albert's eyes, from one to the other, and sees them shine moist and clear right into his. He looks down and away from their earnestness and says 'Well I may bring this up on Sunday. Did you say you were the Rovers?' 'No, they were last year's team. We are the Olympic club father. We take our name from Mount Olympus.'
'Ah, I prefer your name. It's more in keeping with the classics.'
They shake hands and Albert takes his leave, waiting until he is outside to cover his head with his cap and clap his hands together in the cold.
'Bloody goalkeepers!' he mutters under his breath.
The field is Whalley Range, Manchester. The occasion is the semi-final of the FA Cup pitting the old boys of Charterhouse against our lads from the other side of the back of beyond. Long in limb the Old Carthusians, as they style themselves, are big alright. As the Olympic team arrive by omnibus and pull up before the entrance to the ground Albert points out a host of top hats and proper tailoring making their way in.
'Look who's got here first,' he says to the lads.
'Proper tarts,' says Hacking, 'He's a giant. That one's a beanstalk.'
'So who's Jack?' pipes up Ward.
'I'm yer Jack and we'll cut them down. No bother,' says the Coach, 'Like I said. Stick to the plan and they'll come crashing down. But don't underestimate them. This is a proper game now lads. If I know them I bet they've already booked the hotel in London for the final'
The team step off the omnibus cursing and shoving each other, laughing and pulling faces at the other passengers. The Squire, Albert is out front with the Coach bringing up the rear. As they approach the ground they are ushered into their changing room and can hear the heavy boots of the crowd in the wooden seats above them. The door to the opponents changing room is still ajar. Hunter pauses for a moment and taps on wood. The room goes quiet.
'Yes,' says a voice, 'Come in.'
Hunter steps in and, through the mists of pipe smoke, waits for them to recognize him.
'Ah Jack,' says one, 'It's you. Thought you might have given this caper up old chap.'
Jack smiles and nods and takes off his cap, 'No Ed, there's life in the old dog yet. Good to see you John, Gregory, Will.' He nods to former England men. 'I won't be staying. I know you're getting ready for the game but I just came to say that I hope it's a good spectacle and a fair fight. They're a good bunch of lads our lot. Done well to get here. First semi-final. Anyway. All the best.'
No one speaks until their captain says, 'All the best Jack. Sorry to hear about that FA business but it's best forgotten eh?' and the Coach nods and leaves with his tail between his legs.
As he enters the Olympic dressing room he looks for Albert and beams as broad a smile as any man who found a cuckoo's egg. 'Let's take 'em,' he says.
The players emerge from the dressing room onto the pitch. They shake hands with their opponents. The Olympic keeper Hacking sings a popular music hall song.
Oh! I am such a happy man,
I scarce can tell you why;
I live above my neigbours,
In a garret near the sky.
They have to look up to me,
I'm superior by far;
To all the people in our home,
That's why I laugh, ha, ha!
Albert jogs out into their half and immediately begins bending and stretching and nods at the men to do the same. Hunter follows as do the others, bending and stretching as the Charterhouse men stare. Cat calls are heard and a few fat heads give their tuppeneth worth of wisdom from the sides. The men line up and continue to work to the rhythm of the Coach. One, two. One, two. And again. One, two. Then the goals come. One. Two. Old Carthusians are shooting into the brown with their dribbling. The speed of the first goal shocks them. One, two, three passes and it's Dewhurst's and he's firing one between the posts. The second is like a ticking time bomb. You can hear it a mile off but you're damned if you know how to stop it. Hacking to Hunter, Hunter to Astley, long to Matthews and then to goal. Wilson rises to meet it and knocks keeper and ball into the Goal. One. Two. One. Two. All poked up the Carthusians dribble with the ball again, pressing forward but are bewitched by the rhythm of their opponents. One. Two. One. Two. Then up and over to the wing. Yates. Goal. It ends with a fourth and the rout of the Patricians is complete.
Squire Albert Warburton does his rounds but one old boy is none too pleased to have his hand shaken. 'I imagine you'll earn a decent packet for this,' he says.
'No need,' says Albert, 'We're working men. We pay our way in this world.'
Whilst the players trot back to the changing room he looks to the crowd. He is met with a wall of noise. He stands before them for a minute, looking into their faces, all gloriously approving faces, smiling and laughing faces, nodding and admiring glances that he suddenly feels ill at ease and hurries back to the changing room. Yates is in the dressing room already with a bottle of stout for everyone.
'I'm afraid it's the Coach's orders Albert. Stout not champagne.'
'Not that you'd squander it on the likes of us,' says Dewhurst and necks nearly the whole bottle.
'Here's to the goal scorer,' says Matthews, 'as ruthless as any hunter.'
'Ey! And who kept the goals out?' says Hacking.
'Get out of it Hacking,' spits Dewhurst, 'you had nowt to do all game.'
Yates looks uncomfortable as Dewhurst and Hacking begin throwing objects at one another.
'Your training seems to be paying dividends Mr Hunter, ' he goes on shakily, 'And not that I would ever have believed it but your Christian reputation seems to be spreading far and wide I never knew there were so many keen philanthropists in my congregation.'
'Aye,' says Hunter, 'Well, we'll need them on full pay for two weeks this time.'
'Two weeks! You're out of your mind.'
'Two full weeks!' says Albert ' If you want to see a better day than this; then not a day less. And we're going away.'
Yates stammers and shakes his head. 'You thrashed this lot on a few day's training. What makes you think you need more to beat that Eton lot.'
'Eton,' says Albert, 'Are not playing games. When they hear about this it'll be war. You wait and see.'
The Sabbath follows like the rain follows sun. In a tiny terrace cottage in the middle of town Albert Warburton trims his moustache and checks himself in the mirror. He wants to be sick. He can hardly hold his own gaze for more than a few seconds. The silence of a Sunday morning drives a plough through his heart and the long loneliness of another day sets in. He limps downstairs to the larder and cracks himself an egg, then another and spins them round and round til the yolk and the white are mixed. Tipping his head back he pours it down in one and closes his jaw. He grumbles at the cold and the taste of the raw egg. Outside it has just stopped chucking it down with rain. Pools of water swamp the road outside his front door. He steps over them and begins the walk to the church of St. Matthew and the object of his affection. If it's not a woman then it's a cause. If it's not a cause then it's nothing; no more than a continuation of living death. What else is there to live for? He has his cause but how long will this last? He trundles along, wondering if he will get a chance to speak to her. He has met her brown eyes a few times but she does not hold the glance of anyone except her father. 'Am I too rough?' he wonders, 'Do I frighten her?' The long walk is a time to resurrect the many conversations he has had with her in his mind. Apart from a 'Good day!' this is all that he has ever said. He continues his pilgrimage. Onwards up the long hill, past row upon row of houses and women camping out on the flags. Children rush around him asking him where he is going. The tugging at his sleeves and pain in his legs pulls at his heart to turn back and head home.
He goes on until he reaches the wide open doors of the church and enters the nave only to find he is earlier than usual. Some are seated and so he makes his way to one of the benches in the middle, neither too far away or too close to the front. It is not his usual spot. She has not arrived. He waits with his hands clasped together, knees together and looks up at the statue of Jesus gazing down upon him.
'May we sit here or are you expecting company?' says the voice of a crusty old matron who he immediately recognises as the vicar's wife.
'You may,' says Albert, 'I am quite alone.'
The old bat harumphhs and says, 'You'd better get in Rose and you too Caroline. And I'll reserve the aisle seat for our guests.'
She ushers the beautiful Rose and her younger sister into the pew and Albert shuffles to one side to make room for them. Her rich auburn hair is tied back and covered with a black shawl made of lace. She nods at him graciously and he nods to both women. This is the nearest he's ever been to her. When her mother squeezes in there is scarcely room enough for a pin head to separate their bodies. He can feel her thighs pressing against his. Her breathing radiates to his body through hers and he can sense her chest moving. She breathes in. He breathes out. She exhales and he is nor more than a second behind her. Her breaths are shorter and quicker. The organ starts up. Breathe in. Breathe Out. Breathe in. Then Out. The vicar begins with a reading and thanks to God. He asks for the Queen and all men at arms in the Empire to be protected. No prayers for sportsmen are uttered and no mention of the deeds of Saturday. He is on his own. He looks at Rose for a moment. 'Excuse me miss. May I?' She hands him a prayer book and smiles for the first time.
The final is in London. Home turf for the Old Etonians. Olympic are about as distant from that world as the moon seems to earth. There are still weeks to go until they meet and Albert Warburton is doing his rounds. He doesn't need much. It's not going to be a holiday. Before a ball is kicked in anger there is work to be done at Blackpool. He marches to the house of young James Ward. 'Kids,' he mutters under his breath. He bangs hard and heavy on the door. 'Wake up! There's a train to Blackpool and you aren't on it son!' He bangs again and stands back to look up at the upper windows. 'I'm not going until you open up!'
There's a muffled cry from the other side of the door. 'He's not comin' And that's that. Now shoo off!'
'Who's this I'm speaking to?'
'It's his mother. Who else would it be?'
'Then pardon me Mrs Ward but may I speak with your son?'
'No! He's not well I tell thee. Did you not hear me the first time?'
'If he doesn't want to come then I'd rather hear it from the man himself. He hasn't lost his tongue has he Mrs Ward?'
It goes quiet. Slowly the door opens. A pasty faced Ward answers the door.
'I'm sick boss.'
'I can see that lad. Where does it hurt?'
'Me chest mainly. And me head.'
'May I come in?' 'I don't want you to get sick boss. You'll miss the train.'
'You needn't worry about that. Here let me help you.'
Albert forces his way in and Ward lets the door open out onto the front room where there's a fire burning and tub of warm water only recently filled. The mother tuts and paces the room. 'I told him that football would be bad for his health. Playing in all weathers. Look at the state of him. He's never been strong. I had to nurse him for months after he was just born. We thought he'd not be long with us. He'll get consumption like his father if he's not careful.'
'Mother, please!' says Ward.
'Mrs Ward,' Albert begins, 'I can see your son has everything he needs. I've no doubt he'll revive under your care. I don't want him to travel if he's not fit. I just want him to have a speedy recovery. Let me explain. I have for this past few months used the Turkish baths as a remedy and to preserve my health after matches. I'm willing, at my expense, to take him there this morning to get the full benefit of a hot sauna and bath. I promise you that it will do him more good than a hundred blankets and basins put together. And then I'll bring him back.'
Mrs Ward squints and carefully looks at Albert from top to toe. 'What kind of man are you sir! With money to spare on me son. You'll not bring him back. I know you men. Full of tricks.'
Albert offers his hand to the lady. 'I swear to you, I will take care of him and bring him back this afternoon and I will remain here until he's better.'
The two men make their way down to the baths. Ward is coughing and snivelling all the way. 'We're not going to the baths are we boss,' says Ward.
'A promise is a promise,' Albert replies. He won't treat his players like fools. He expects him to hold his head up as best he can. 'Now try not to look like a collapsed steam pudding when we get to the baths. They can exclude you if they think you're not right. Try not to look down so much. That's it.'
Ward does his best to smile. 'I never been to a sauna before. Is it very hot?'
Albert spends a good hour or two with his man, getting him into a hot bath and chatting to him. He calls on him over the next two days and by the third he is fitter and strong enough to catch the train with him to Blackpool.
'Don't bring him back sick,' yells the mother as Ward slams the door behind him with suitcase in hand.
'Wake up! C'mon wake up! If you want to be a champion YOU'LL BE UP BY NOW! It's time,' yells Hunter, doing the early rounds and pacing along the corridors of the boarding house. He is already dressed in a singlet and shorts. He raps his cane on the doors and then opens each man's door wide. The men are twinned and Warburton is with Hunter. Between them they have an agreed plan of action. Get up before six. Be up and about before anyone else. Hunter bawls and shouts as a trainer should. Albert goes round encouraging anyone who is still slumbering by opening the curtains and bantering with his men. It works so far. James Ward, recovered from his bout of sickness, takes a few more minutes than others turning over to face the wall. 'Up you get Ward. I'm not your mum.'
Dewhurst snarls but as a cotton worker his body is already set to the early call of the factory and the rush of clogs on pavements and he's half dressed by the time Hunter knocks. Arthur Matthews curses and swears as the curtains are ripped open. The April sun is already up. John Yates sits bolt upright and starts running on the spot like a lunatic. Hacking is the laziest and hasn't even got his eyes open until Warburton takes him to the sink to splash his face with water. His room mate is Astley who has taken to throwing water over his snoozing face before Warburton gets to him.
'Oi! Oi! You've been snoring like a bear. Get up you lump!' says Astley, 'It's breakfast soon. You'll like that!'
'Breakfast?' snorts Hacking, 'Where? Have I missed it?'
'No,' says Albert, 'We've not even done our walk yet.'
They make their way down to the dining room where Hunter is waiting for them with two raw eggs and a glass of port. 'Get this down you. Pick you up no end,' he says.
They head out for a run along the sands, hunting in a pack, following the Squire who is the hardest runner and out front leading them on. 'C'mon. C'mon,' he shouts as much to himself, GOD and Arthur Kinnaird combined. He turns to his men and runs backwards to allow them to catch up. 'Do'you think the Old Etonians do this before breakfast?'
'They're not daft enough,' groans Ward.
'No,' says Albert, 'They're not. But can you do what Lord Kinnaird does?'
'What?' says Dewhurst, 'His handstand?'
'Yep, the handstand that he does whenever he wins a trophy. Does it everytime so they say. Shilling that you can't do it. Right here.'
'Right,' says Dewhurst, 'Watch this,' and he takes a few steps back, breathes in a sack full of air and leaps forward, thrusting his arse in the air and succeeding in looking like a bucking pony.
'What do you call that?' chips in Matthews, 'You look like a fat clown.'
'You think you can do better?' snarls Dewhurst. 'Be my guest.'
'That won't be hard,' says Matthews, 'Will, can you do the honours and catch me as I go up and I'll do the rest.'
Matthews takes three steps back and then hurls his thin frame forward like a monkey, up and over, Will Astley misses his catch and falls backwards leaving Matthews a clean piece of sand to collapse onto. A roar of laughter goes up and Albert shakes his head.
'Me back. Aghh. Me bloody back,' shouts Matthews. 'I can't get up. Help! Can you not help?'
The laughter stops and the lads surround him and gradually get him to his feet. Matthews can hardly walk.
'Me back feels stiff captain. I don't think I can carry on.'
Albert is crimson and stares straight ahead. He covers his mouth with his hand. 'I'll take him back to the hotel,' says Jack Hunter, 'You go on ahead and complete the run and I'll see you back for breakfast.'
They turn and head back, Hunter with Matthews, moving slowly.
'Right lads, he'll be alright. He's in good hands. The sooner we get this run done the sooner we get back for some food,' says Albert and turns to run. Everyone follows at a steady pace.
Fortune is not favouring them now. Matthews is absent from their practice match. The long passes out to the wing no longer have their hare-like recipient to chase. And there are different tactics to practice now which none of the men think much of. They spend several hours practising blocking, tracking their man and taking the ball. The Old Etonians have a frightening reputation for being able to dribble past man after man, keeping their opponents penned into their half like sheep. Their players are drilled to intercept the ball when it is lost and begin another run at goal. Hunter has half the team attempt to simulate this and the other half to defend as the spring sun warms their backs. They grunt and slip, clash and fall as the ball is returned to the start for the next dribbler to begin the whole thing again. Some laugh and fall about on their backsides at the clumsy dribbling style of Ward who somehow manages to evade three tackles before he's bearing down on Hacking and thumping the ball between their markers for the goal.
Albert scowls at the scene in front of him. Something is telling him that they will be beaten. Matthew's injury is a bad omen. It's a sign that they are taking things too easily, enjoying themselves too much. If all they can do is pull their forward men back to defend against the enemy how are they going to score enough goals to win? If they aren't equal to the fighting spirit of their opponents they'll wish they'd never made it to the final. 'Get into him Gibson! If you can't get the ball at least get your body in the way! For God's sake!' he yells and stabs the ball away from the next attacker and the next. He is losing his way he feels. He can't do it all. The men are all quiet but keep going. Blocking and ferreting the ball he chases them like geese being herded by a dog.
'Have you thought about your speech?' asks Jack later that evening. Albert shakes his head. The two men are finishing off their supper at the long table. Most of the men have gone to bed. A few of them are assembled around a table playing cards and the sound of coins rattling on tables echoes in the dim fire-lit room.
'No,' says Albert, 'I don't put much on words. It's actions that matter not words.' The Coach nods as if mulling it over.
'The match is everything and you are a great captain,' he says, 'Your men are in awe of you sometimes. You never back down. And you know how to play. But when the occasion demands it there is more to the game than the action on the field. There's the feeling for the game. What's in the players' hearts? Fear? That can be good if they fight for fear of losing but will they win with that fear? I faced the Scots and the Welsh with fear that they were better than us and we were roundly beaten. We never thought that we could attack them because we were too afraid to lose. If you can think of something to say before the final. Something to make them feel strong and invincible. Something to take their minds off losing. To make them play like we did against Druids. Think about it.'
Albert nods and listens, looking at the darkness behind the flames, the coal and the soot and wondering and wondering what words he can say to change anything.
At Kennington Oval the crowd is a sea of top hats and pipe smoke. The gentlemen have found a new date in the social calendar and are out in force. Some of them are standing, waiting for the players to enter the arena. Some sit and stare out at the scene around them; a giant gasometer rising above the bare tree tops, rows of Georgian houses staring back as if they were gods, brooding over the destiny of men. A small group of Lancastrians who have made the trip south gather in the standing area around pitch and press against the white wooden fence that marks them off from the field. Old Etonians vs Blackburn Olympic. The FA Cup Final 1883. No grass is greener than the grass of Lancashire. For the rain it raineth every day. But this will do. The pitch at Kennington is clean shaven and marked for the occasion. Two officials are checking the posts and pulling the ropes tight that mark the height of the goal. Spring has not yet sprung and there's a chill in the air.
In the dressing room the Squire finishes lacing his left boot then moves to his right and begins talking to each of his men, asking them how they are feeling, about their boots, their bodies, their souls. There is a constant hum of laughter and expectation in the room. An official knocks on the door and walks in. 'Five minutes gentlemen and we'll be ready to start.' Albert knows he must say something now. He imagines Kinnaird making a great speech about strength and courage, duty and honour, the battle still to be won. His deep Scots voice sending shivers down the spines of his players. He brings his thoughts back to his own speech. What was the theme? A day of history? A day of destiny? Bugger it.
'A few words from our captain if you please,' shouts the Coach. The dressing room falls silent.
'Lads, you know me,' begins Albert, 'I like to keep it short and to the point. I don't think many outside Lancashire gives us a chance of winning the cup today. The papers are up for Old Etonians. And who can blame 'em? They don't know us. They've never seen us play. Perhaps they think we are the same breed of men as the Rovers were last year. But what breed of men are we exactly? Hard as nails. Quick on the ground. Faster in thought and movement. And above all prepared. They don't know that for every Arthur Kinnaird we've got a Dewhurst, for every Dunn we've got a Hunter, for every Goodheart a Matthews. The question we should be asking is are they prepared for us? Are their players good enough? Yesterday's winners are yesterday's men. But we're the men of today. That's how history's made. We had a good trip up in Blackpool didn't we? If I have to eat another oyster it'll be twenty years too soon. And what was it for? All those early mornings and practice, the sacrifice. For this. This is what we were born for. Not work. This is what matters. I don't need to remind you of our master plan. Jack's been through it enough. It's a simple game really. No different to any other. Just score more bloody goals than them. And keep them out like your life depends on it.'
The men curse like navvies and bang the walls with their fists and boots.
At the centre of the field the two captains Kinnaird and Warburton shake hands. 'Fine day for a battle,' says Kinnaird.
'Indeed!' replies Albert.
'I see you brought your English cap with you.'
Albert looks around at Jack Hunter and turns back to Kinnaird.
'Too many caps weigh a man down.'
The umpire tosses a shilling for the kick off and Kinnaird calls it right. An omen? 'You'll take the kick off then.' He turns to his men. 'Look lively. They're kicking off. Get into your lines.'
Kinnaird. Five winners medals to his name. His ninth final. A giant of a man who has played virtually every position on the field. A colossus of the football association; his large, sad eyes, white teeth and a beard glowing red in the spring sunlight. Albert looks straight at him and examines his face. The best player and possibly the best athlete of his generation in his best whites. Never for a moment did he reckon on how he would feel at this moment. Having only read about him in newspapers and seen caricatures of him he is surprised by how tall and wide the man seems. How do you get round him? Kinnaird looks at his rival captain and offers his hand.
'Shall we play laddie?'
Satisfied he turns around and bellows to his men, 'Ready!' They assemble into a kind of arrow formation, their attackers falling behind each other. The game breaks out. Olympic immediately launch forward and give the ball away. Kinnaird's men kick for territory. High and long and as it falls they rush to knock it on. Arthur Dunn of the Etonians leaps for it against Costley and wins it, knocking Costley out of play. The ball rebounds off the Olympic players and back to the Etonians. Goodheart makes a dribble but before he can look up his legs are nearly sawn clean off by a sliding challenge from Warburton.
Warburton looks up at Kinnaird. They stare at one another for a second.
'Play on!!!!' shouts Kinnaird and kicks a forward pass. The ball rises like an eagle and threatens to plunder the Olympian goal. Hunter holds his ground, traps it on his boot and then steadies himself for his first real kick. He takes it short. A quick one to Warburton, who lays it back as the Etonians rush. It lands just beyond Matthews and out of touch. The Eton men come again, this time dribbling forward, flanked by their forward men. Driving forward. Skipping one challenge. Slipping the ball past another before an Olympian hacks the ball or the man. But still they come. Kinnaird urging them on, the Etonians dribbling it forward. One loses it. Another brings it forward. It's unlike anything they have encountered before. Each player appears to have a magnetic power in keeping the ball. The Olympic men are pushed back towards their goal. Albert thinks back to the beaches. 'We won't score like this.' 'Come on!! Don't just kick it. Win it!' Hunter is also clapping and yelling, preparing for a break through. It comes. Chevallier bursts through but before he can bear down on goal Hunter is there to clear the ball. Back it comes with Anderson and Goodheart. Kinnaird tries to slip it through Astley's legs. Albert can't see a way of stopping it unless they try something different. Rather than taking the legs out he shoulder charges and put his body in between the man and the ball then lays it back to Hunter. Hunter back to the keeper and they have time to play it out. Hacking goes to kick it long and the Etonians back off and run back towards their goal.
'Give it. Here. Now,' shouts Albert, fooling them with a short pass, moving the ball around his players, dribbling forward and then as the Eton men charge him down he releases it along the ground to Astley who puts Matthews in with a long pass to the wings. It's onside. They turn to catch him but Matthews is quickly ahead of their back line and running on goal. He hits it early and it bounces just wide of the posts. There is a roar from the travelling spectators and then a round of applause. It encourages the men but they struggle to break free again. Etonians play for territory, kick long and then rush to dribble on goal. Kinnaird squares it long to their wing and Macauley is there to centre to Goodheart who traps it and dribbles past Hacking before planting it calmly into the goal. 1 - 0 to Etonians. That's the half. The players scramble back to their dressing rooms.
'Jesus wept Harry!'
'Running around like a barn animal!'
'We need to get a grip!'
'There's no fucking play. Where's the game plan?'
'I'll tell you where the game plan is. It's fucked. That's what it is'
'We're just watching them come at us.'
'You're running after the ball too much.'
'Why don't you stand still?'
'And then what? Get thrashed?'
'Are we watching the game or playing it?'
'We need to take the ball off them. It's no good just clearing it.' The last voice is Albert's.
Hunter joins in, 'He's right. When you've got it turn and pass back. Stop trying to pass sideways in tight spaces. Pass back to me, Albert or the keeper. Back first and then we go forward. Hacking, you'll need to come out your goal and get the ball back in play quickly. Then pass it directly out to the wings.'
The second half begins. The captains meet in the centre again.
'That was quite a racket you were making in your dressing room captain,' says Kinnaird with a grin.
'We intend to give you a game. How are your men?'
'A few knocks but nothing we can't handle. Yours?'
'Same. Shall we play?' says Albert.
They kick off. Kinnaird picks it up and here they come again, driving forward at speed, relentlessly like the constant rattle and hum of a loom at full power. Launching long, clearing the Olympians' lines and making them run back to their goal. Each forward taking the pass and shooting on sight. Hacking catches, blocks, turns one round the post with an outstretched leg. They clash, the two armies, like hand to hand combatants, bruising, kicking, shoving each other out of the way. But Hunter and Warburton fight for every inch of turf. The ball goes back to the Olympic keeper who launches it to the wing. Matthews completes a pass to Dewhurst who plays it back into space for Matthews to chase. The whole Etonian lines shift back towards their goal. There's a chance. Matthews bears down on the goal but Paravinci comes from nowhere with the speed of a cat to block him. Matthews hits it hard before the tackle comes in and it whistles past the keeper who can only watch it. 1 -1. The tide changes. Now wave after wave of attacks hit the Etonians back line. One, two. One, two. The rhythm of the Olympians' passing returns. The Etonians run but can't get to the ball. Dunn and Ward come together. Dunn falls badly and his ankle turns over. The men gather round but as he gets to his feet he can't walk let alone run. He limps off the field to applause. This isn't yet the final twist of the knife. As the final minutes tick by Kinnaird skips past Ward and Astley and has the run of the midfield, slipping it to Bainbridge who returns it quick. Kinnaird has only Hunter and Warburton to beat so he draws then in and slips it through to Macauley. There is no-one but Hacking, smiling, clucking Hacking in his way. Macauley smashes it hard and low into the bottom corner but before it can reach the goal, Hacking sticks out a leg and it goes out of play for a corner. The crowd roars with applause and cheers them on but the full ninety minutes has run its course and there is a decision to make. The captains meet again with the umpire. To carry on or play another ninety minutes another day? Blood and muck clings to every man. Hearts are still pumped up but Kinnaird has fewer men. He sniffs the air a moment, hands on hips. Then 'Play on!' he growls and the game goes to extra time. Tired limbs are forced to bear the pain for thirty minutes more. Albert turns to huddle with his men. His chest feels like it's going to cave in but he tries to stand upright.
'They're tired. Look at them. Sitting down to catch their breath. We'll win this now. They'll sit back and defend. I know it. We just need to find a way through.' 'That Kinnaird's quick for an old man,' says Ward, 'I can't catch him.'
'Trip him next time will you,' says Albert.
He knows his men are ready and with a nod to Hunter he gets them facing the opponent's half once again. This time as each tackle flies in the men get chopped down faster than a Norweigan forest at Christmas. And they're slow to get up. Down goes Paravinci. Down goes Wilson. Down goes Gibson and Yates. But there is one battering ram still upstanding. Dewhurst runs into space for Hacking to clear, it drops to his feet and he runs down the wing, meets Goodheart bearing down on him like a bull but Goodheart slides in too soon and Dewhurst skips past into acres of space. The Olympic players scream at him. Albert stops. He watches the ball rise from Dewhurst's foot and arc over to the centre of the goal. As it drops he looks for the receiver. It could be anyone but it's Costley, one of his own. One touch and he lets fly and all Albert can think is 'It's going in.' And this time, no goalkeeper's fist or leg diverts its course and the ball flies like an arrow to its target. Goal! He looks to the sky like an oracle searching for an omen. Now he has one. A tin pot, gleaming like gold. His men are running to reach Costley to congratulate him. He is too tired to run any more. He turns around to face his keeper and shakes a fist. Hacking raises his arm and salutes like a red coat. Hunter walks over. 'Thank you,' he says 'for everything.' Albert nods. He looks over at the pavilion to see the gentlemen standing to applause. The men from home are waving their hats in the air and yelling like devils. He searches for a familiar female face in the crowd but he can't see her.
'You're welcome,' he says to Hunter, 'Do you think they'll hear about this back home?'
'Aye,' says Hunter, 'Bound to. We've only gone and done the impossible. Never hear the last of it.'
Albert pats him on the shoulder and trots over to the others, shaking hands with the vanquished before jumping into the arms of his men. There, in this embrace, he forgets everything and everything is forgotten.
Author Notes: This was the only time that Blackburn Olympic achieved the feat of winning the English FA Cup. It was also the last time that Old Etonians entered the competition.