“Ah want me name printed on the back o’ me shirt!”
Thompson leaned his spindly, tall frame into the wind and rain that blew directly into his red, cadaverous face. The hissing and keening of that wind and rain blended with the squeaking of his boots on the sodden grass as he ran full pelt towards the ball. He thumped the ball hard. The connection of his boot on the heavy brown ball made a sound like a brick being thudded into wet cement.
“What tripe ye talkin’ now, lad?” McMaster growled in his thick, taciturn Aberdonian accent. “Names on shirts? What would be the bloody point in that? The fans that come tae the ground week in, week out will soon know who ye are, son. They’ll learn tae recognise ye. Specially if ye start slinging the ball in the back o’ the onion bag week in, week out. Don’t you worry about that. Names on a shirt! Never have I heard anything so bleedin’ silly! Besides, if they don’t sing yer praises from the terrace, they can always look up yer number in the programme to find out who ye are. In case they need their memories refreshed. Or if they want tae single ye out for a slaggin for bein’ shite!”
McMaster wiped a beading curtain of rain off his forehead. It formed a neat suture at his hairline, starkly indicating where it began to recede. He watched as the ball plummeted out of the grey sky and bounced on top of the crossbar with a hollow clanging sound. The white crossbar trembled once with the impact, then shivered like a dog shaking the rain out of its fur. The ball plopped into a puddle and stood perfectly still.
“Besides, if ye don’t score goals and keep oan doin’ things like ye just did the now, the fans won’t need tae ken yer name. Because ye’ll no be in the startin’ 11. Ye’ll be dropped faster than a hot shite and the folk on the terraces will be only too glad to forget yer bloody name. And then will ye be wantin’ ‘who the hell was he?’ plastered all over the back o yer shirt, eh, sonny?” McMaster waddled up to Thompson and, reaching up with his outstretched arm, playfully cuffed the lanky aspiring centre forward round the ear.
Bloody hell, McMaster thought, as he tried to quell his erratic breathing, he’s a damn big lad. Bloody Land of The Giants stuff! Should be good in the air. A real predator at set pieces. He wouldn’t have to jump very much but his leap at full tilt must be phenomenal! The lad must be at least 7 ft tall. OK. Maybe that was an exaggeration. Christ, I’m knackered. Don’t think I can hack this lark much longer. Specially not with boys like the Big Man comin’ through the ranks. They must put them in grow bags as toddlers these days! I’m not cut out for this now. I’d need a bloody step ladder to mark the likes of him. Aye, my days are done. It’s time for me to hang up the old boots and let the younger generation take over. I’ve had a no bad career, all said and done. Coulda been better, coulda been worse. Oh, man. What ah widnae do for a wee puff on a tab right now. And a nice big pint o’ heavy …
“One day it’ll happen. You’ll see if it doesn’t!” Thompson’s adolescent and adenoidal squeak scratched at McMaster’s red raw ears and brought him hurtling out of his reverie. He wondered, not for the first time, if Thompson’s balls had dropped yet. How old was the lad now? 17? Maybe they hadn’t. I mean, after all, it still sounded as though his voice was yet to fully break.
A diminutive little man hunched into a damp raincoat and casually smoking a cigarette eased himself away from a crush barrier he’d been slouched against. The little figure rolled his shoulders a couple of times like a prize fighter limbering up for a sparring routine and then slid the fag from out between his lips with a thumb and forefinger and nipped off the lit end. McMaster had felt his presence throughout that morning’s training session but had only been dimly aware of the man by sight. He occasionally caught a glimpse of the man in his peripheral vision but no more than that, so that he seemed to be a spectral and fleeting vision. McMaster wasn’t a tall man but even he towered above the unprepossessing little man. McMaster straightened up respectfully as the little man approached him, his brogue shoes slurping through the mud and wet grass of the training pitch.
“Colin. Hard graft this morn, lad, eh? You look as if you could do with one of these. Wee pick me up for you, like,” the small man said in his intense, grating voice. He held out a packet of Woodbines, one cigarette edged out. “Gaffer,” McMaster grunted as he teased out the proffered fag between cold and numb fingers.
Harry McClintock – or, simply, “Gaffer” – had been installed as manager of Penrith 3 years ago. Despite a slight twinge of boardroom distrustful unrest, which had been shared by a smattering of the club’s meagre yet staunchly loyal fan base, McClintock had overcome any doubts as to his perceived inexperience as a football club manager at any proven level. At the time The Gaffer assumed the role as Penrith boss, the club were languishing in the nether regions of the English regional labyrinth, lost and floundering in the very depths of one of the myriad Northern tributary leagues and combinations that writhed in the guts of the English pyramid system. Penrith had only ever survived and barely made ends meet, ascending to a highest-ever finish of 9th out of 18 clubs in the Cumbrian Combinational Division 2 the year before McClintock arrived. The Gaffer had presided over a minor miracle in his first campaign in charge, instilling within his motley and inexpensively assembled squad of journeymen ex-pros and aspiring, up-and-coming local youths an all-conquering belief in their own ability that probably appeared quixotic and mad to any outside observers who cared to take even a passing interest in the team’s affairs. On this tide of bravura and self-belief, the players augmented as a highly efficient and functional unit, the ragged and piecemeal forsakenness of their parts coalescing into a whole that shone and pulsed a luminous desire to win. Penrith FC were a team marvellously transformed. The Cumbrian Combinational Division 2 championship was all neatly wrapped up and clinched with 5 matches to spare. Now, the club were on the threshold of the most important season in the entire history of the football club. In the ensuing two seasons, they had risen to the dizzying and improbable heights of the pinnacle of English non-league football after securing a further two consecutive championship triumphs. If they achieved a third, Penrith FC would take their place in the privileged elite of English football: they’d be a professional league team.
Harry McClintock wasn’t quite attracting the admiring glances and attention of the professional lower league Big Boys just yet, but the board – their initial trepidation about hiring Harry very much banished to the past and dismissed as naïve folly – were already inviting him into the boardroom and having cosy chats over the best whisky that was normally secreted away in a cupboard and only revealed on special occasions. These chats flattered Harry, even if he sometimes found their fluttering imprecision mildly frustrating. Eventually, the Chairman, a florid bear of a man called Roy Moss, would cut to the chase with a guffaw and another generous splash of Scotch. Moss wondered what Harry’s plans for the future might possibly be. This topic was treated with a modicum of sensitivity and circumspection, since neither Moss nor his fellow board members wished to tempt fate or, indeed, plant any seeds in Harry’s brain that might all too abruptly germinate into flowers of flight. No, no, of course Moss wanted to refrain from putting grandiose ideas in Harry’s head! Clearly, that former niggle of trepidation had been replaced by a niggle of worry that their new-found miracle-working genius manager might be lured away in his prime, before the good custodians of Penrith FC had got to revel in the glorious excitement of just how far Harry could take them. The board, Harry could already sense – there was no point in deferring to any false modesty here – were determined to wring every last drop of success out of his tenure at Penrith as his talent ripened and his star ascended, before he inevitably departed for bigger and better things.
“What do you make of the Bean Pole, then?” Harry asked in his Glaswegian growl. McMaster knew how to decipher the nuances of that growl. To the uninitiated it sounded as though The Gaffer was permanently angry. Frequently, the growl reflected Harry McLintock’s natural default mood setting of cantankerousness. But today the growl was amiable, despite the fact his raincoat and shoes were soaked right through and no doubt ruined.
“Still a bit naive. Hesitant to get the full meat o’ the forehead on the baw, anaw. Needs to muster some courage, I reckon. But, Christ, a salmon’s got nothing on him when he jumps. He’ll put on the beef, but. Nae danger there, Gaffer. Clyde ye brought him doon fae, wasn’t it?”
McClintock nodded. His face was pinched like a wise old sage. “And afore that he was at the Celtic. Played a handful of games for their youth team. But Frankie McRea was naturally concerned about his lack of girth. Felt he would always be a lanky big streak of pish. Sent him out to Clyde to fatten the lad up. And then decided to let him go for good, after further reflection. I think the boy’s bashful timidity worried auld Frankie a wee bit, too. Didnae think he’d make it at Parkhead.”
McMaster sucked shrewdly on his Woodbine. The acrid blue smoke made him screw up his eyes. The lit end of the cigarette hissed in the rain. “Mind, few boys do make it at Paradise. That’s no black mark against the lad. I’ll take a wild but educated guess that Clyde had the very same reservations. Hence the appearance of the Empire State Building here in sleepy downtown Penrith.”
“Aye, you’re a shrewd bugger you, alright, Colin. Nae flies, eh? I have a feeling in my water that he’ll do a job for us. A damn good job, at that. I’m not always right, of course. But I’ve been vindicated too many times to distrust my intuition.” The Gaffer sidled closer to McMaster and placed a hand on his arm. It was almost a tender, fatherly gesture. “You ken I trust you more than any other bastard around this club. I value your opinion, son.”
McMaster had always known there was a special bond between him and The Gaffer. It wasn’t merely the fact they were both native Scots living in the exile of a provincial English town in the middle of rural nowhere. No, the bond was deeper and more fundamental than that: elemental, perhaps, or even familial. McMaster knew there was no use denying it to himself. Harry McClintock had been a sort of surrogate father to him since his own dad had died when he was 16. Now McMaster was 39. In all honesty, The Gaffer couldn’t have been that much older than McMaster was. He just looked and sounded older. How old could he be? 48? 49? At a push 50.
The Gaffer had picked McMaster out at an Aberdeen youth team match. McMaster couldn’t recall who the opponents were that day. Maybe Raith Rovers. He had hazy memories of dark blue shirts. They’d been ferociously dirty bastards, though. High and reckless tackles flying in all over the shop. McMaster had no real recollection of the match because he had lost interest in playing for Aberdeen; an hour before the kick-off, his manager at the time had rather shamefacedly ushered him into his office sunk beneath the main stand at Pittodrie and told him, after much humming and hawing, that there was no future for him at Aberdeen. When McMaster had asked him what he meant by that, the manager, clearly uncomfortable in such a situation, dispensed with all pretence at blow softening and euphemism and told the precocious but callow McMaster he was being released. After that day’s fixture, he wouldn’t be playing for Aberdeen again. He was free to find another club. McMaster could remember being in a stupefied kind of daze. The office also smelled very strongly of wet paint and peppermint.
“Aye, I’m sure he’ll be fine, Gaffer. He’s got real thirst for the game. Very enthusiastic. We’ll lick him into shape and no mistake. Don’t worry.” McMaster said and took a long draw on his cigarette.
“A wee lost soul chucked out of his Heaven. I knew a laddie in that predicament once upon a time. A wee laddie so bereft he thought about giving the game he adored up and working for a pittance and no respect in a factory. Or on the fishing trawlers. A wee bauchle in need of a tender arm roon’ the shoulder and some words of comfort and wisdom. Hard words, mind you. But laced with a certain love. Ach, if no love – for we crusty auld Scottish geezers aren’t cut oot for such sentimental fripperies, are we, son? – then a wee drop of affection.” McClintock shook his head and smiled wryly. His eyes gleamed at the memory.
It was true. After the game, his last for Aberdeen, McMaster had floated around the dressing room in a daze. He had been hypnotised by the news his then-boss had delivered. Once he’d had a bath and got dressed, his mind had settled into a rough and ready clarity. He felt he needed to do something. Action was the watchword. McMaster was overwhelmed by the jolting and imperative feeling that he had to do something – anything – and he had to do it right at that very instant. Of course, McMaster knew now, with the reflective musing and thought that can only be earned through maturity, that he was making excuses for the situation he found himself him. In a sense, he was also trying to minimise the impact of what had happened by somehow undermining it, tempering its colossal and sudden seismic collision in a life that had, up until that moment, being going along quite nicely and according to what McMaster’s young self had believed to be a perfectly feasible and acceptable preordained plan. He had now discovered, in the rudest and most shocking way, that destiny wasn’t immutable. The world and the men in that world colluded to radically alter your life, your plans, your ambitions, your hopes, your dreams. That was what had so horribly afflicted McMaster back then: the meaninglessness of it all. The lack of purpose. The flux. The unexpectedness of being discarded by Aberdeen compelled McMaster to look for permanence and a sense of clarity and mission – indeed, a sense of purpose – to cover up this terrible chasm that had now opened up before him. He needed to steal the thunder of this shock. He had to deprive it of its agency, its ability to dislocate his existence. He needed a gesture of intent, even if it was merely a facile and a token gesture. That’s why he stubbornly pledged the rest of his life to working with his uncle Tam on his trawler up in Peterhead. At least it was doing something. It was seizing and resting back control. It was having his destiny and his fate firmly returned to the grasp of his own hands.
And then as McMaster stomped out of the main stand at Pittodrie, head bowed and limbs clanking like pistons, he almost literally bumped headlong into Harry McClintock.
“Ye must remember that afternoon ye nearly sent me for a flyer ootside Pittodrie. Ye were like a man possessed. Or, at any rate, a wee laddie wae a massive bee in his bonnet aboot life. And ye were hell bent on boardin’ the nearest fishin’ boat to spend the rest o yer life reeking o herring and constantly reminiscing – and probably ruing – the life fitba could’ve given ye. Aye, so whit if ye didnae make it at the very pinnacle o the game and ye only turned oot fur Albion Rovers or some wee provincial two bit ootfit? At least ye wid ah made it, ken? It widnae o just been a pipe dream tae you, son. Unlike aw yer peers, aw they laddies ye went tae the school who aw fantasised aboot bein’ a fitba’ player! They hud their dreams and aspirations steadily ground oot of them doon the pit or in the factory.” McClintock had folded his arms like a stern teacher. He surveyed McMaster with a critically appraising look. “I’ll bet yer forever grateful that ye saved yersel fae aw that heartache, eh?”
The truth was, of course, that it had been Harry McClintock’s intervention in his life that had saved McMaster from any regret-induced, football-inspired heartache. But the man, despite his steely and uncompromising certainty about his own ability to excel in football coaching, was a remarkably modest man in other respects.
“Even though a ken noo that yer heart wisnae in it that day, ye were the best, most outstanding centre hauf on that pitch that day, son. Ah dinnae ken or care how many times I’ve telt ye this anaw. There was something impregnable aboot ye. Yer physical presence, yer timing of the tackle, yer positional nous. Yer turn o pace – quicker than the nippy wee forward yer were marking! It wiz aw there. Raw potential. And ah kent ah could mould and shape raw potential. That wiz the plasma ah always looked oot for. That wiz whit ah could work with. Aye, son, raw potential. The mystery elixir o the Game and nae mistake. Ooof, and the fact that on yon particular day yer heart wisnae in it and yer were probably only barely playin’ at half pace! Ah couldnae wait tae see how guid ye were when ye were takin’ an interest and payin’ attention! Ah wiz hooked, laddie. Ye had me! Aw ma fitba’ instincts were lit up like a bloody Christmas tree! Ah couldnae wait! Naw, laddie, there’d be no hookin’ haddock oot in the cauld and desolate and unforgiving North Sea. Ah wid be hookin’ you!”
It always struck McMaster, afterwards, that fortuity and the fickle beneficence of the Football Gods had perhaps been pushed to the limit when Harry McClintock told him that he wasn’t even supposed to be watching a youth match in Aberdeen that day.
McClintock had been due to take in a match at Dundee to cast his eye over an exciting and raw left back but the fixture had been cancelled at the very last moment. Anxious not to waste his visit North, McClintock elected to mooch around any other games that were in the local vicinity. He abhorred any hint of idleness and, besides, his employers at Fulham, where he was a rookie scout with an already proven and admired keen eye for a player – with a particular penchant for spotting precociously raw defensive talent – wouldn’t want him to come back down the Low Road empty handed. So McClintock hopped in his battered old Austin Marina and puttered the 60 or so miles up the A90. Before setting off, McClintock had taken the time to use the telephone in the Dundee boardroom to call ahead. Sure enough, there was a bounce match between Aberdeen and Raith Rovers later that afternoon and if he left Dens Park now, he’d make the kick-off with plenty of time to spare.
McClintock’s friend and old sparring partner was at the match. McKay had been doing odds and ends, ad hoc scouting stuff for Brentford and quite fancied the look of another Aberdeen youth. McClintock quickly forgot about any other potential signing prospects 5 minutes into the game when a tall, lithe and strapping lad went bulldozing into a ferocious slide tackle on a Raith centre forward. The poor wee boy was sent hurtling into the air. The stalwart specimen didn’t even stop to admire his handiwork but simply righted himself on his feet and concentrated on winning the next ball.
“Who’s the big bugger at Number 5 fer the Dons?” McClintock muttered from the side of his mouth. It was a foible he had never lost and he only did it when he had spied a player he liked. It was almost as if when he acted in such a furtive manner, then he wouldn’t alert any other scouts who might be vying for a player’s attention to his interest. McClintock felt it was a psychological tick that acted as a guard and a check against revealing too much enthusiasm to a competitor, who might nip in and steal your quarry.
“Aw, him. Boy by the name of McMaster. The coach disnae think he’s anything special. Bit of a waster, by all accounts.” McKay replied cautiously. “Yer no seriously interested in that puddin’?”
“Ach, who knows? Ah wisnae even supposed to be here the day.” McClintock said. But, inside, his stomach had been captivated by that familiar flutter of excitement, like there were a million bees buzzing about his belly. He was determined to dampen down his enthusiasm and started talking about Aberdeen’s alleged star man, the neat and nippy Number 9. It was all show, a diversionary tactic. McClintock had no interest in any other player on the pitch. His attention was solely and exclusively vectored in on this blonde vision of defensive prowess in a red shirt, this preternatural skyscraper called McMaster.
“Rumour has it the fella’s surplus tae requirements at Aberdeen,” McKay said with a knowing smile and an imperceptible wink. “Naebody else’ll take a punt. Ah’ll guarantee ye that, Harry, son.”
“Is that a fact now?”
“Could be yer lucky day.”
“We’ll see,” McClintock murmured, his eyes locked on this lad McMaster as his blonde head intercepted another cross ball with muscular alacrity. “We’ll see.”
Penrith FC had raced into a 6 point lead at the summit of the Conference and confidence was galloping through the players’ veins. They were unbeaten in all competitions and, on current form, looked incapable of being defeated. The squad had been fortunate to evade, by and large, the ubiquitous bane of most football teams throughout a season: injuries and suspensions were at a healthy premium. Goals had been spread evenly throughout the team, which meant that even if Penrith FC didn’t boast a talismanic goal-getter extraordinaire, the sheer fecundity and eclectic variety of scoring source material would have made the absence of such a lodestar a mere inconvenience and not a catastrophe.
But FC Penrith did have such an emblematic talisman. A man – indeed, scarcely a man at all but a mere stripling, an acorn who was fast developing into a mighty oak, a precocious and fresh-faced lad – who had already bagged 15 goals in a total of only 11 appearances (and 3 of those had been started as a sub). A man who had wasted little time in becoming a fan’s darling, infatuating himself to their adoring and passionate entreaties and sought out with assiduous and strategic ruthless post-match ardour by wide-eyed boys with programmes proffered for that precious magic charm, his autograph and a bug-eyed middle-aged woman who leavened any distressing sexual discombobulation with the reassurance that they would be the one to mother him.
Such an impeccable talisman was Thompson.
Thompson’s bean pole gait had been somewhat ameliorated by a punishing and labour-intensive exercise regimen that primarily involved running along the boulder-strewn shore at Windermere until the lad could run no more and vomited copiously on the team bus as he fought to suck air back into his oppressed lungs. Added to that already gruelling physical activity, McClintock insisted the boy lift heavy wet bags of sand. The Gaffer had heard this is what Sonny Liston had done to keep his svelte physique in trim and if it was good enough for a world champion boxer, it was good enough for FC Penrith’s star striker. McClintock also had a unique dietary portfolio that applied to all the players in the squad, but was thought especially vital for Thompson: steak, cooked rare and accompanied by eggs was forced down the boy’s scrawny neck, day and night. McClintock had heard that Bill Shankly used the Steak and Egg technique to bulk out his Liverpool players. The Gaffer would not flinch from instituting such cutting-edge science: if it was good enough for the likes of Bill Shankly and Liverpool, then it was more than good enough for FC Penrith and Harry McClintock.
Thompson – many at the club were still unsure of his Christian name – was bestowed the honour of a nickname. In deference to his 6-foot-5 stature, he was, at first impression, somewhat unkindly and maliciously given the appellation “Gawky.” But soon this seemingly unflattering epithet became a badge of pride and the young lad himself had, quite subconsciously, taken to using it when referring to himself sometimes. The Gaffer had his own preferred informal nomenclature: he called Thompson “Sonny,” no doubt unable to get visions of Liston out of his mind.
When Thompson lined up for matches, it was The Gaffer’s choice that endured and stuck. He was listed on the team sheet as Sonny Thompson; the Press made use of the moniker; opposition players, managers and fans praised or heckled him as Sonny Thompson; and even his own parents, in an act of cheerfully colluded pride and amnesia towards their own son’s baptism, praised his exploits as “Oor Sonny.”
Francis “Sonny” “Gauky” Thompson had grown up in a tenement flat in the war-scarred and pothole plundered East End of Glasgow. Back then, he was just wee Frankie, the apple of his adoring mother, Regina’s, eye. Thompson’s father was less inclined to overt displays of affection and, like most Post-War Scottish working men of his generation, he eschewed practically all public acts of love. The best Wee Frankie might have expected from his father – when he was at home and not down the shipyard or the pub – was a brisk but half-hearted and distant ruffle of the air or a playful, yet firm, clout round the ear.
Thompson Senior only began to notice his son when Wee Frankie showed exceptional early ability with a football. The boy was also growing at a prodigious and seemingly nature-defying rate of knots, which ensured both in terms of height and sheer physical presence Wee Frankie wasn’t quite so “wee” by the time he had reached 12 years of age. Thompson Senior had to grudgingly accept that his boy had already eclipsed him in height and resented having to go through the ritual of craning his neck to look up when he wanted to talk to the lad or attract his attention. It was at that stage, after much gestation and furtive cunning, that Thompson Senior spied an opportunity that could not be missed and put into practice his plan to mould his son into a professional football player.
To be continued…