A good friend once told me that the Irish make whiskey in order to punish themselves. Or perhaps I should say that he warned me that the Irish make whiskey in order to punish themselves.
I had laughed when he said it, which was easy to do sitting in a dive bar in Southern California at 10 at night, trying to decide which of the bottles behind the counter looked the least dusty. At 10 in the morning, though, with my head pressed firmly against my desk, not actually pounding the desk but feeling as though it was, I wasn’t laughing. At that moment, I wished my friend was there so that we could debate whether the Irish made whiskey to punish themselves or to punish me.
Then I remembered that he, like the rest of my friends, family and indeed, everything my life had been up until a few months ago, was thousands of miles away and that I was in an office in Drumdondra, Dublin. Slowly it came back to me that, through some turn of events I still didn’t fully understand, I was now trying to manage a football team in the second division of the Irish football leagues. And that I’d just come up short in the one task the board had set for me. Actually I’d fallen short twice. They had wanted me to get the team promoted by winning the league, which I had failed to do. I had also failed in getting promoted through the playoffs, losing on penalties. Sometimes, I reflected, you put your faith in people and they repay you by totally letting you down when you’re really counting on them. The shots my striker and star winger had taken, and missed, replayed in my head.
I tried to push it away, but just found my brain become enmeshed in questions... Who was the player? What was the game?
As I lay flopped on the desk, I wondered whether Ireland had pain relievers sold under the name brand Excedrin or if there was some other brand name that I needed to search out to get rid of this headache. Then I reflected that if any good had come from this strange journey from my home in Southern California, it was that the migraines that had plagued me since adolescence had not followed me. Before this hangover I hadn’t had a headache since arriving.
I thought back to the first time one of those headaches had come to me, when I was about twelve. Although I was always a voracious reader as a kid, just keeping my eyes open hurt. Listening to music on the radio had the potential to bring jarring pain and newstalk radio quickly became repetitive. Podcasts hadn’t been invented yet, let alone FM podcasts.
I had lain in bed all day, head hurting and stomach queasy, barely moving. When he’d gotten home from work, my dad came in to check on me. I’d groaned, likely making things seem even worse than they were, so he’d stayed and read to me. I remembered feeling simultaneously like a little kid and grown up when he said he was going to share a book that he had recently read and liked. That feeling deepened as he read to me the story of two pilots wrestling with the nature of reality. I didn’t understand it, but I understood what my Dad was trying to communicate in sharing with me. Or I thought I did. Or I think I thought I did. In any event, I hadn’t felt that grown-up again in years.
I was brought back to the present with an actual crash, as someone came in and put a stack of papers on my desk. The sound echoed through my head painfully and I quickly lifted it off the desk to see if the pain would stop.
It did not.
Luckily, no further such outbursts occured, so I kept myself upright and tried to focus on the papers that had just been deposited on the desk. After spending what seemed like a long stretch of time trying to resolve what the top sheet said, I realized that there was still someone in the room with me and decided to just ask that person what these papers were.
I looked up from the desk, wincing as more light entered my eyes, to see my personal assistant, who was more like my personal nemesis, looking at me.
“You’re better than this. You are. You have to be,” he told me.
“Eh…” I replied.
“We’ve got to go through the squad and pick out who’s going to stay with the team and who you’re going to cut loose,” he continued.
I tried to shrug to indicate that I knew that, but since I winced again at the movement, I wasn’t sure if my assent came across, so I said “I know that.” It came out very raspy and then I started coughing while he just stood and stared at me.
As I glared at him through my coughs I made the international hand motion for “let’s get on with it,” then remembered that it didn’t matter much, since he wasn’t an actual person, allegedly. Then I remembered that it didn’t matter, that he’d know the hand motion since I did.
“I’m sorry again about the punch,” I started. He waved that off with a hand movement that I recognized as one that I would have used.
“No need to say anything about it, it was a stressful situation, by design,” he told me.
“But still, it was wrong of me to get caught up in the moment and I know that you are…” I trailed off, not sure how to finish the sentence.
“... just another version of you?” he prompted.
“No,” I set my jaw and stared at him, “I was going to say ‘responsible for my being here,’” I finished, thinking back to the memo he had written and left for me to find just before the playoff final.
“Sort of,” he agreed, nodding. “Mostly not though. I think you’ll find that ‘this too shall pass,’ to coin a phrase,” he joked.
I thought back again, this time to the moments just after the shootout which had sealed our fate in the lower division for another season. Just after throwing the punch at my personal assistant I had walked over back to the dressing room, having to hear during the entire walk the sounds of the Cabinteely players and fans celebrating their win. It had been so close, but they were moving on and we weren’t.
I also heard the jeers of the handful of Shels supporters who were still in the crowd, some of which were very specific about what they wanted to do to me or certain members of my family. I stared up at the stands for a few long seconds, not really seeing, before I realized my presence was making the jeers worse and headed down the tunnel. I steeled myself and tried to rapidly gather my thoughts for the talk I would need to give the team to try to console them, keep them ready to come back next year and do it all over again. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and prepared to enter the room.
As I reached out my hand for the door handle I heard the shouts of “We are going up, I say we are going up” coming from the other locker room. Shouting, laughing, stomping, cheering. Then I heard a more frantic voice that sounded as though it was right next to me saying “He’s waking up I said he’s waking up!”
I stumbled, reaching for the door. “It’s not time yet,” I heard a voice answer. “Send him deeper.”
Just then Alan Byrne came down the tunnel and stood next to me. He’d been a stalwart presence on the squad throughout the season, though not one of our best players. He must have seen in my eyes that I wasn’t right, although he couldn’t have known the reason why. “It’s not our time yet,” he told me, “But don’t let it send you off the deep end.”
Looking around I saw that we were alone in the tunnel. It must have been the pressure getting to me, that was making me hear voices.
After I’d spoken to the players I lingered in the dressing room a bit, then made my way out.
The next night at the end of season awards I’d sat sullenly speaking enough to fulfill my duties, but mostly just sipping on a drink in the back of the room as the team of the season was announced.
After everyone else had gone, I’d sat by myself while the staff cleaned up, still nursing a drink. That was my memory of how I’d gotten here anyway. Punishing myself.
I brought myself back to the present and tried to get myself focused on the team and what we needed. I’d have to stick it out, headache or no. Punishment for punishing myself.
“All right,” I thought, “I’ve got work to do. I tried to cut through the fog in my brain and think of what the team lacked? Better finishing by the strikers? Definitely. Or, wait, maybe it was better service to the strikers we needed. Who could think through a headache like this?
My assistant was still standing there, and I became aware he was shaking his head at me. “You’re better than this,” he repeated. “This is terribly cliche.”
“What,” I asked, “an American who doesn’t have any soccer knowledge trying to fake his way through a job?”
“That too,” he agreed, “but I was thinking of coming to Ireland and ending up hungover. It’s too much.”
He put a bottle of tablets on my desk and walked out. “Anadin Extra” I read on the label and quickly took the recommended dosage.
I picked up the stack of player reports he’d left on my desk and then put them down again. We’d scored the second most goals in the league and allowed the second fewest and had come close to winning the league and even closer to winning in the playoffs. I didn’t need to look through all of these reports to know who had let me down in the 11th hour. What this team needed was a new striker and a new winger, so I set out to read through the reports and find them.
A few weeks later, my head clear again, we found our new winger. Just as training camp was starting we signed Cory Galvin on a two year deal for decent wages, but not at the top of what we were paying.
The striker was tougher to find and it wasn’t until the end of camp that, out of panic and fear of missing out more than anything, we brought in Jack O’Keefe, despite the fact that at 19 he hadn’t developed much beyond what our 17-year old prospect Daire Dixon possessed.
In fact, I had a feeling I’d be looking at both of them during training, wondering why I had
As for the striker and winger who let me down, well I probably don’t need to tell you what happened to them. I got sentimental and brought them back too.
Most of the outgoings were staff, as I got rid of the assistant manager, the head of youth development and rejiggered our scouting team. When the dust settled at the start of the season our staff compared favorably with the rest of the league, with the exception of sports science and data analysis, where the board wouldn’t let me hire anyone.
Alan Byrne, who’d come to my aid in the tunnel, was our new assistant manager. Although lacking in some areas, he was a clear improvement.
I was feeling good about how things were coming together while I worked in my office late the night before the opening game of the season when the Chairman walked in, wearing medical scrubs. My eyes darted up and down his outfit, since I’d never seen him out of a full three piece suit before. He looked at me, looked down at his clothes and then suddenly he was back in his regular suit.
I shook my head to clear it, not quite sure what I’d seen, as he came toward me with his hand outstretched. “Mr. Rafferty, I know you know that we on the Board expect you to win the league, but I wanted to come tell you once again how important this is. Not just for us as a team, or you as the manager, but for you personally, it is important that we get promoted this year. Also…” he paused, “... I’m not at liberty to say more, but there are larger forces afoot which make it important as well. In fact, I would say many people in positions of power have conveyed to me that it is imperative that you guide the team to the best possible finish. Our way of life may depend on it. Your government is counting on you.”
“I didn’t know the Irish government had taken such an interest in football. Is this something to do with things across the border due to Brexit,” I asked, genuinely puzzled.
“Not the Irish government, your government,” he replied, adopting a flat, midwestern American accent, “the government of the United States of America.”
WIth that he left before I could even open my mouth again. I slumped back down in my seat. Where a few minutes ago I had worried that we might lose some sponsors if we didn’t have a good season, now I was afraid I was in the middle of something of international significance. What was going on?
I finished filling out the squad sheet thinking to myself “well, I suppose we’d better win it so we can find out…”
For those who haven’t read my dispatches before, the earlier parts of this series can be found at my blog.
I also have a slack channel where I do more day-to-day description of what is going on in the save, it’s at #olddog-shelbourne on FM Slack. You can also find me on Twitter.
To end my posts, I like to have a song that I consider the end credits. For those who may not be able to see the below video due to regional rights issues, it’s “Work to Do” by Lee Fields & The Expressions. It’s a live version I enjoy, but any version will do to soundtrack the end of this post if you’re so inclined.