You’ve got to sell yourself at the end of the day mate

4 02 2018

Football had never provided a stable employment sector and those working in the sport perpetually carry this cultural baggage. John Jenkins had known its weight for twenty two years.

If you’re lucky to have a career in professional football you get used to a lack of stability. It’s there when you start out as the system that appears to offer glory and riches sheds hundreds if not thousands of doe-eyed hopefuls to the anonymity of real life without a second thought.

When you’re playing there’s an omnipresent sense of fear, fear of injury, fear of reduction to bit-part status, fear of not gaining a new contract. It’s there when a manager’s honeymoon period ends, it’s there when youth coaches realise they can be relieved of their roles almost without notice.

JJ thought he knew where he was with football but it only took a couple of days as player-manager to realise that the pressures he now faced had a totally different feel. Within a couple of weeks he had noticed that the pressure was omnipresent. No sooner had one challenge been bested than another hoved into view. Summers were now a mixture of phonecalls and thwarted plans, even when he was on holiday, especially when he was on holiday.

Today’s problem was just another layer of worry, another part of the managerial tapestry; it was the end of November and his United side were on a bad run. There was absolutely no way of denying that things looked bad, or that the sense of pressure had increased, JJ hadn’t woken up with a sunny disposition for six weeks.

When people talk about “them that work in football being so astronomically rich they don’t worry about the day to day grind any more” they are only giving a partial story. Abundant riches may exist and they may have cushioned people from real life pressures to an extent, and even cushioned football’s pressure to an extent, but they have also exacerbated the sense of pressure.

How can you truly enjoy financial security without job security?

A lack of wins quickly becomes “a major slump” and a virtual scandal.

We must win.

We must entertain.

WE SIMPLY MUST NOT LOSE!!!

At times the premium income didn’t feel worth everything that went with it, JJ was still amazed that football had become so short-termist.

When JJ began his managerial role some of the older coves from football’s fraternity offered him candid advice. Some of the advice was useful; it was better to remain aloof from the players, shouting did lose its impact after the first time, he always asked advice but stuck to his decision in the end and he wasn’t afraid to change.

But other parts of the advice sounded like it came from a different time. The memory of someone else’s words cannot prepare you for the sensory onslaught of “a major slump”, it’s something that you have to feel to understand. You have to actually live through a six week period where you veer from thinking about next season’s European logistics to reading tweets that label you as a fraud.

JJ’s experience had provided a fast eye for detail so he had been the first person to notice that things were going astray. He could have offered his opinion to the public weeks ago, if anybody had bothered to ask, but he didn’t for two very good reasons.

Firstly, he remembered how he felt whenever his manager had publicly criticised his team. Teams rely on confidence and negative public interventions do not help, confidence has to be sustained not dissipated.

Secondly, he remembered the wise advice about being careful around journalists lest they chip away at everything you’re trying to do. Everybody remembers public managerial meltdowns and that’s not how he wanted to be remembered.

When strident questions began to fill JJ’s football landscape he knew that people had finally caught up with his analysis. The idea that people appeared to think that managers were unable to understand football was once a source of private amusement but the terrace critics, radio show callers and tiresome journalists were no longer amusing.

JJ detested the constant need to justify himself when his side lost and loathed the overly fulsome praise when his side won, he hated expressing the same sentiment ten times.

Losing because a couple of details in a match slightly eluded your side is bad enough but being forced to listen to other peoples’ opinions was probably the worst part of the job. His trusted coaching staff were the only opinion he needed and they only needed to express their opinions once.

Everybody else’s input was less than worthless in terms of winning football matches, yet these opinions were everywhere. Even when he wanted to switch off from football the opinions were still everywhere. He used to say half-jokingly say to his friends “Could you still read that newspaper if you knew it also contained a less than flattering public opinion about you?”

He could say with sincerity that people were entitled to their opinion, they paid his wages blah blah blah, but why did everyone try to sound like an expert, anybody can look like an expert in hindsight but why does everybody try to sound like an expert before the matches as well? It’s very annoying when you have to humour the people that don’t appear to know that it’s very easy to think when you aren’t under the pressure of judgement by end results.

Fans still came to speak to JJ as he entered the ground on a matchday, or when they saw him in Tesco, and they were always supportive. Hearing a small example of simple human warmth  like “Come on JJ, we know you can turn this around.” could always pick his spirits up.

JJ always came across as an optimist but he could see a hundred well-wishers and only remember the harsh words of the single critic.

His uncanny ability to pinpoint individual voices in the crowd didn’t help. He hated that split-second of nervous tension when he actually caught a critic’s eye, he hated seeing the shameful face, he hated seeing someone that had been caught doing something they didn’t want to be judged upon. It was pointless behaviour on every conceivable level.

It’s amazing that people think they can say anything within the anonymity of a group, but them it’s equally amazing that people don’t seem to realise that the twelfth row isn’t very far away.

Good natured patience was out these days but anger was very fashionable in your “modern football” . The good will that automatically came with the status of authentic club legend was clearly no longer limitless. Last week JJ had made the mistake of searching for his name on twitter and it was almost soul-destroying, all of the goals he scored and trophies he won were faint apparitions, the latest defeat was all that mattered.

JJ really disliked the judgemental way in which some people thought about football. Hair-trigger emotions do nothing but create pressure. Don’t we all want the same thing? Don’t we all crave the same success?

Everyone knew JJ’s place within United’s history. He was in second place on the highest goalscorers’ list and fourth on the list of appearances makers. Everyone knew his part in the titles, cups and European nights. These past glories, memories that had made everyone so happy, had been placed in the dustbin of history by some people because United had gone weeks without a victory.

Fans might be amazed to learn that managers don’t entirely trust fans with fickle attitudes because it’s like dealing with spoilt teenagers. How can people move so easily from clichés about temporary form and permanent class to the judgemental “He’s lost the dressing room he has”? How can people not realise that they sound ridiculous? It helped that JJ was always perfectly aware that patient fans still existed.

Those that work in football view their sport with an unsentimental air. There are few grey areas when it comes to results and United’s recent record was stark by the end of November; depending on your point of view United had either failed to win for six matches or only registered a single win in the ten matches since the middle of September.

JJ knew that these results weren’t good enough but he was still an optimist, he tried to spin the situation by saying that because seven of those defeats had been by a single goal things could change quickly. He knew things could change quickly, he had seen that happen plenty of times, including three or four of United’s seasons.

There were too many unreasonable expectations.

For example JJ once asked a fans forum whether they would accept a judgement about themselves if that opinion was based on things they were unable to control? While most seemed to agree with this fair point a few of the more confident fans provided answers that were variations of “Yeah, but….”.

JJ responded to those people by asking whether they thought a manager could actually control everything. When a few responded with “Yeah but” again JJ let fly;

“I’m sorry some of you feel like that but you haven’t seen went we do in training. You don’t see how hard we work every day to get things right. You don’t see how the coaching team tries to think about issues and problems. You don’t see how some of our training drills are based on the analysis of opposition’s weaknesses. You lot just saw the misplaced pass, the mishit shot and the opposition goal go in.

You don’t seem to understand that we can work all week on something, and that this approach can work perfectly for ninety nine percent of a match, but the tinniest of details, the most insignificant of small details, can still go wrong and ruin all of that work.

You can analyse and find weaknesses, you can try to work on things to instil confidence but Smithy can still slip and the cross can still arrive at their striker’s feet, or they can still score the winner against the run of play because Damo was five yards out of position when the ball was halfway inside our half.

So tell me, how is a manager supposed to deal with that?”

Nobody answered with “Yeah, but” that time but this was the judgemental environment that managers have to deal with.

When JJ answered his board’s call for help three and a half years ago he became United’s first player-manager for a quarter of a century. The speed with which the decision was made, and the situation progressed, naturally led to a feeling of dislocation. It wasn’t just his new responsibilities there was a new style of human interaction.

One of his old managers advised him that he had to put distance between himself and the lads in the dressing room. On the most basic level this isn’t difficult because you can just stop using the dressing room, however it is more difficult situation on the emotional level.

You have to change from the person that’s in the middle of dressing room humour, the person that started most of the dressing room jokes in JJ’s case, to the person that has to drop his mates, and you have make this change almost immediately.

Until this forked road in his journey coaching certificates had been curiosity that involved vague ideas about post-playing career options but now he had to actually use them. Would his mates listen to him? Would they play for him?

Those worries were without foundation because his quiet sort of charisma was sufficient. The players wanted to win for him and the fans. JJ wouldn’t let them forget the fans. It helped that his golden touch meant that he could still weigh in with his share of goals, admittedly he didn’t score the quantity of goals he used to but he was the most senior member of the squad.

The first season was a great success because it produced the first cup triumph for twelve years. JJ had been not only been able to combine managing and playing, he had made a telling contribution in many matches like the late semi-final winner and the explosive derby winner.

The second season had been good as well as European football had been achieved again. He may not have contributed as much as the first season but he had still scored three or four important goals. The third season was much the same.

The fourth season was very different. The positive results were slower to come, the cup matches were closer as the side seemed to win thanks to luck rather than skill. European football was achieved by the slimmest of slim margins.

JJ knew football was like that. He had always thought that United’s fans lived up to their reputation as patient and knowledgeable people but it turns out that some of their fans were just like everybody else when they thought success wasn’t coming their way.

In this particular autumn JJ knew that he hadn’t been quite doing it on the pitch over the last eighteen months. He had been the first to know, it was his body.

He was slightly slower to react to everything, some passes moved slightly too quickly and some crosses were slightly too high. He was still in the right areas of the pitch but you don’t lose that special awareness.

JJ wasn’t particularly worried that the passing of time was reducing his effectiveness, it happened to every player and you cannot hide from the progress of time. He wanted to keep playing and he thought he was good enough, his general recption as he warmed up and the crowd murmur when he was about to come on told him that.

The barbed dressing room comments told him that his teammates had also noticed; “It looks like you’ll have to drop yourself gaffer.” And he’d return the badinage but behind it he knew they knew, you can’t hide in a team of highly tuned professional sportsman.

Then he started to hear the comments from the frustrated crowd “You’re too old Jenkins.” He knew that they were just frustrated and taking it out on a passing target but it didn’t make it any easier to hear. Twitter was full of harsh words and the phone in shows spoke about the tarnishing of memories. He still scored a couple here and there but it wasn’t quite the same.

Alas, you cannot hide from the passage of time.

A general sense of pressure was building, if only people looked at the game as he did, then they could see that we weren’t far from where we should be, or could be. Injuries hadn’t helped but the absence of that elusive quality called confidence had been more important.

JJ knew that fans paid good money to come and watch us but some fans didn’t seem to understand that shouting at “their” players until their veins were popping out of your neck didn’t make the players play any better, or concentrate more, or score more, or stop the other side from scoring.

JJ pinned his hopes on January, he knew that a new sense of urgency from a few new faces could help.

He wasn’t sure if he had enough resources to tempt the kind of players he needed, he wasn’t sure if they’d come anyway if truth be told. United still had a pull, and to judge from past conversations with people so did he, but would it be enough? Money was too tight to mention, as Simply Red once said.

So how would JJ freshen things up when money was tight? How could he get his squad to think about things and adapt?

He thought about varying training, but they already did that. He thought about slackening and increasing the tempo but they’d done that as well. Different tactics might work but what if they didn’t? If only he could put his finger on the missing ingredient.

THE EUREKA MOMENT ARRIVES!!!!!!

In the middle of December a cartoon light bulb illuminated above JJ’s head. The answer had been staring him in the face all along. He was going to put himself on the transfer list, he was going to sell himself.

He knew the side had been relying on his reputation a little bit too much, he could still produce a brilliant flash of inspiration but United needed a more regular supply of inspiration.

He knew he could do a job for someone, he knew that he could get a good price for himself and the move would impress the chairman as it would be one of his efficiency savings; his contract contained a special premium if he played.

The brilliance of the decision was in its simplicity, with JJ the player gone JJ the manager had one less problem to think about. The other players could thrive without the added pressure of his presence in the team.

He tried to explain his idea to his family and they said that they could understand what was going to happen, although he could see the doubt in their eyes, especially his wife.

He tried to explain further; “The idea came to me as I watched Superman 3 the other Sunday. You know that scene with the Bad Superman?” He son looked at him with amazement but his daughter wasn’t sure.

He was still wondering about the best way to broach the subject with the players on the next day’s drive to the training ground, would they think he was mad? After JJ’s announcement the squad looked at the decision from two perspectives.

From a football perspective the players wondered if this was a wise move. They knew they needed JJ’s skill and calmness, or even just his mere presence.

On a more fundamental level they wondered if JJ had lost his mind, how could he create two people by separating the player from the manager? How could he sell himself and remain as manager? JJ assured them all that it would not be a problem. ”I’ll explain all at the press conference” he said, and with that he was gone.

JJ spoke to the board, they were also incredulous but again he assured them that there would be no problems. The chairman perked up when he heard the bit about efficiency savings. JJ assured the board that there would be no problems. ”I’ll explain all at the press conference” he said, and with that he was gone.

The club’s PR department called a press conference for the next day with a statement that contained enigmatic phrases “GROUND-BREAKING DEVELOPMENT!!!!” and “WORLD’S FIRST!!!”.

After the press release social media was alive with rumours, questions and incredulity. “How can a manager sell themselves and remain in post? The guy’s lost it!!! #lostit” being one tweet.

Social media rumour-mongering turned the press conference into the biggest media event the club had ever hosted. The nationals were there, international journalists were there, twice as many television cameras were there.

JJ began by carefully explaining how he would become the first Player Manager to remain as a manager and sell themselves as a player. As soon as he started speaking there was a noticeable hum in the room. JJ then introduced the philosophical underpinnings of his idea. He started with Cartesian dualism…

“I believe that there are two kinds of foundation: mind and body. The mind can exist outside of the body but the body cannot think. This theory has been called substance dualism and it’s compatible with every type of outlook, whether that’s scientific, philosophical or religious.

For example from a religious point of view immortal souls are said to occupy an independent realm of existence that’s distinct from the physical world. Therefore in effect it is possible to separate one’s mind from one’s body.”

…continued with concepts..

“The idea of non-reductive physicalism tells us that while mental states are physical they are not reducible to physical states, therefore we can separate the mind and the body.

Here I am talking about an idea like anomalous monism that was first proposed by Donald Davidson in his 1970 paper Mental events. In the paper Davidson stated that descriptions these so-called “mental events” are not regulated by strict physical laws.”

…moved on to Chalmers…

“David Chalmers, in his idea of naturalistic dualism, outlined the explanatory gap between objective and subjective experience that cannot be bridged by reductionism.

For Chalmers consciousness is, at least, logically autonomous of the physical properties and requires a new fundamental category of properties described by new laws of supervenience, but we don’t need to detain ourselves with the full implications of that here. It is enough to say that like other philosophers Chalmers sees his work as naturalistic because he believes that mental states are different from, and cannot be reduced to, physical states.”

… then Jackson…

“…Another philosopher to bare in mind here is Frank Jackson. When he revived a theory of epiphenomenalism he revived something that tells us that mental states do not play a role in physical states.

For Jackson there are two kinds of dualism. The first is that body and soul are two different substances. The second is that body and soul can be different properties of the same body.

He goes on to states that the mind/soul are internal, very private sphere that are not accessible to observation by others. For example we can know everything about a dog’s ability to follow a scent but we will never know how a dog experiences the following of a scent.”

The press knew that this was no ordinary press conference. How many press conferences made you question metaphysics? JJ continued..

“..While I appreciate that the reason for calling this press conference may sound a little “different”, and I may invite ridicule, I believe that I have just established my idea’s sound philosophical grounding.

I realise that I may be the first manager ever to quote philosophy so extensively in a press conference so that in itself may sound surprising but it is only surprising because this the first time that I have openly quoted philosophical ideas in public.

I started an Open University degree five years ago and I have since progressed to a Distance Learning Masters in Philosophy at the University of Durham. Until this moment I have looked on this education as a private matter, a charming diversion from the world of football.”

While tranches of the audience were agog, large clumps were incredulous. JJ then explained the part that a Sunday afternoon nap played…

“…The idea came to me as I watched I Superman 3 on TV the other week. I was having a nap and woke up just before the scene where Superman turns bad. I carried on watching and thought that I’d love to be able to do that, I don’t mean wreck an oil tanker by the way!

I mean separate my mind and body.

Then I thought why not! I could split my Player-Manager role into the separate roles of Player and Manager. The philosophical ideas that I have studied in the past quickly came to mind.

I went to the university library and took out books on the ideas of reanimation, transmogrification and transubstantiation. When I read them I knew I was on to something then.”

JJ finished the press conference by assuring the fans that knew this move would be a world first but they had to go with it. JJ assured them that it would be the best thing in terms of the squad, the coaching set up and most importantly, metaphysics.

With that he was gone, he didn’t take any questions.

The media and social media went into what they term “meltdown”. Sanity was doubted. At home JJ turned on to the news challenges and members of the public guffawed.

JJ wasn’t downhearted, he knew that he had done the hard bit by convincing himself that it was possible to separate the mind from the body, he still reasoned that there was nothing to stop him from visualising different parts of his mind developing separately, all he had to do was make it happen.

For all of his conviction he wasn’t quite sure how he’d do that, he just knew that he would show people what he meant. JJ must have have felt calm that evening because he enjoyed a very pleasant night’s sleep.

Strange things afoot!

The next morning JJ’s Mercedes was resting at the lights by the branch of Tesco he normally visited when something strange happened.

An extremely odd sensation washed over him, it felt like something was being sucked out of him. The sensation only last a couple of seconds but a distinct aura remained. The lights changed and JJ pulled off.

The aura slowly developed in intensity. A couple of sideways glances told JJ that it was developing into human form. He didn’t feel worried because something told him that this is what he wanted to happen.

By the time he was in his training ground parking spot another body was sitting in the passenger seat, it was a perfect copy of him. JJ felt that instant rush of elation that comes with relief. This is exactly what he said would happen! He had proved philosophy correct and the naysayers wrong.

Both JJs left their car at the same time and walked towards the training complex’s main buildings.

Naturally people took double takes as the JJs walked past. Pete Kennedy spoke for everyone when he said; “OH MY GOD!!! BOSS you were right, YOU WERE RIGHT!!!” When they went through the main doors JJ the player went one way and JJ the manager went the other.

JJ the manager sat at his desk as if he’d been liberated. Everything felt lighter and more positive, joy and relief, relief and joy. The workload suddenly felt smaller, he could do his job properly, concentrate on everything that he needed to do in the office, and not worry at all about taking part in training.

As JJ basked in the relief of the new situation Pete Edwards stuck his head around the door. JJ asked his best friend what he thought about everything. “Jesus I don’t believe it JJ, you were right, you were right!”.

Pete continued babbling and a thought came to JJ “Bloody Hell, it’ll be a bit weird if they see two versions of me at training.”

JJ told Pete that he thought that it would be better if he and the rest of the coaching staff took training until JJ the player left as things would be less complicated that way. He would still give general guidelines and observe training from his office because the last thing we need the players to do is freak out, we’ve got matches to win. The Assistant Manager left JJ to get on with his piles of paperwork.

When JJ realised how much he could get done without taking part in training he thought about changing his mind but he resolved to stick to the original plan. He was still going to sell himself, how weird would it look if two JJ were seen together? It was lucky that United didn’t have a match this weekend otherwise we’d be knee deep in fuss.

On the training pitch JJ the player went about his usual business. His teammates had obviously felt the natural surprise of finding out that the metaphysical development had actually happened but they also were reassured that aside from the knowledge that there were two JJs nothing seemed to be different. They weren’t two JJs on the training pitch at this particular moment.

It helped that JJ the player seemed to be the JJ that they all knew, he looked exactly the same, sounded exactly the same and ran in exactly the same way. He looked exactly like the same as JJ the player-manager.

The older members of the squad couldn’t help notice that JJ had returned to his old relaxed self. When they mentioned this to JJ he said “Well I haven’t got to worry about managing now have I?” with the old sparkling eyes. The sparkle was back!

JJ the manager heard the effect of social media fuss before he saw it from the windows on the far side of his office. The hubbub caused him to move towards the windows. The training ground had been mobbed by fans, journalists and TV crews.

When training ended the world saw the evidence with their own eyes, two JJs got in to JJ’s car. The crowd and the media surrounded the car as if they were insects in an Indiana Jones film.

After the exchange of pleasantries about weird days neither JJ spoke on the journey home. There was no need to speak, they both knew what each other was thinking and they both instinctively knew that the situation was too strange to think about.

Helen met the two JJs at the front door and kissed both of them she was so flummoxed. Their children stood in her wake and gazed with disbelieving faces, Mark said to Emma, “SEE, I TOLD YOU Dad was right!”. All Helen could say was “I knew I shouldn’t have doubted you when you had that look in your eye!”.

Without speaking JJ the player took himself to the spare room he decided that it would be better if he stayed in the spare room to avoid confusing everybody, he was the JJ that was going to leave after all.

Later that afternoon Helen casually asked JJ the manager a question “Yeah but what about his clothes? Is he going to share your wardrobe or what?” which was a quick reminder that life often throws unintended consequences into your path.

JJ the player told them not to worry, he’s be fine in training kit for a few days, he was only going to be lounging around the house anyway.

Neither the player nor manager had the desire to venture out of the house, especially with media people about. They both realised simultaneously, naturally, that it was a great situation that they didn’t read the tabloids. What kind of person wants to see themselves plastered all over the pages of a tabloid?

JJ the manager logged out of social media and they both kept the news channels off the telly. Merely getting to work was enough at the moment for a few days.

On the fourth day after the profound metaphysical development JJ the manager ventured to a third destination for the first time when he visited Tesco. A person sidled up to him in the pasta aisle and said “I’m sorry to see you go but I’m also glad that you’re staying as well!” All of a sudden the situation felt beyond weird.

At least when JJ the player went clothes shopping JJ the manager knew that his clothes would be cared for. JJ had always been a fastidious type when it came to personal appearance, he hated getting marks on his clothes and the way that other people could be inconsiderate about someone else’s things.

In the middle of the second week after the profound metaphysical development Athletic came in with an offer for JJ the player and JJ the manager quickly accepted it, JJ the player was glad to be going, he hated not being able to leave the house. He could mourn the fact he was no longer a United player later.

On the day he left as a player JJ the manager offered fulsome praise.

“JJ was the very image of this great club for 15 years so it’s fitting that I offer thanks to him on behalf of our club and our supporters. We’d like to offer JJ the player all the best for the future, except when he plays against us!”.

The press and supporters may have doubted him but he had proved that the impossible could be done. You could create two different people by separating the player from the manager.

For weeks after the transfer the shoulders of JJ the manager remained relatively light. It was great to have a freer mind, a mind that could concentrate on the job of managing. The players noticed that JJ was still relaxed; “Well I haven’t got to play anymore have I!!! I can’t be blamed for you lot cocking it all up can I!!!” he said as his eyes sparkled. The players laughed along with him.

Nobody was able to pinpoint what had changed but it was obvious that something had changed.

Not only did everything feel more relaxed something appeared to be working in matches because United were unbeaten in the first four post JJ transfer matches (two wins, two draws). Everything just felt better.

The fact that it appeared that United had received the better end of the deal probably helped, JJ the player appeared to be struggling to settle at Athletic, and they were doing even worse than United.

The media praised him for his masterstroke and “obvious business acumen” but JJ didn’t meekly accept the plaudits or the media’s representation of the situation. He knew that he always needed a few weeks to adjust to new surroundings, he knew that JJ the player would find his feet eventually, and so it proved.

Once he adjusted to the characters in Atheltic’s squad and their football approach JJ the player’s undoubted skill shone once again; he scored in three consecutive matches in February. By the end of March he had scored seven goals in fifteen league and cup matches, set up a few more and won a couple of man of the match awards.

JJ the manager was pleased that he was back on top form as he knew what that would feel like. It was nice that there was a bit of space between player and manager but JJ the manager still wanted to keep abreast of the player’s progress, which was easy thanks’ to our media’s football obsession.

For a couple of months the United v Atheltic match had been merely the fortieth match in a forty-two match season, whenever an interviewer asked him about the match JJ the manager spoke with a gleam in his eye about people having a great chance to offer a fitting tribute to a club legend. It was easy to feel magnanimous when your side is doing alright.

Atheltic’s improved form didn’t matter because United were maintaining the same relative gap. April’s second match, a 2-0 home defeat, dropped the massively unwelcome hint that if United weren’t careful they could be passed by Atheltic but this hint was dismissed.

In truth Athletic had been catching United ever since JJ the player had hit form.

When JJ the manager watched Athletic on telly he saw a confident team, a team that belied their lowly position with tough and silky football. It appeared that JJ the player had been their missing link. Consequently the forthcoming match had developed a distinctly ominous feel before Athletic actually passed United at the end of April.

In April United reverted to their pre-transfer form. United may have snubbed the first of the optimists “next chances” in April but the month provided other chances, and they were all snubbed with apparent abandon. It is very hard to remain optimistic when your side returns to misery as time appears to progress far too quickly.

JJ began to wish that he could go and do something on the pitch, he yearned to get on and do something, he knew that he could have done something, he still had an assured touch in training. He also knew that FA had insisted that because he had sold the player part of himself he was physically unable to set football on a football pitch.

The cold hard facts were inescapable.

There were three league matches left.

Atheltic were in seventeenth place with 41 points.

United were in eighteenth place with 38 points and a vastly inferior goal difference.

A worst case scenario had developed in plain sight.

It took these bone dry facts for JJ to finally realise that he could be the first man in the history of football to relegate himself.

Atheltic were about to visit United, JJ the manager was about face JJ the player. The match from the near distance was now in view.

The optimistic grasping of March – “I wouldn’t worry just yet” – felt far older than a couple of months.

In October nobody would have predicted that United’s involvement in virtual relegation decider but who would have guessed that United’s erratic form and the quirks of the fixture list would combine to produce such a scenario. Nobody would have thought to envisage that a player-manager could sell himself either.

The media was absolutely devoted to what they had decided to christen “El Metaphysical”. The build-up was annoying for all concerned as the media pursued their usual hyperbole-driven agenda of sell sell sell.

They seemed to interview everybody with a pulse and dragooned the United fans into two camps. One side said that JJ had tempted fate by selling himself to Athletic and the other said that it was impossible to look into the future and adequately predict what will happen.

JJ knew that when you’re in the vortex of football you see how the media works, you see how agendas are constructed to draw interest to a product. JJ saw this in the way they had framed this story.

The media said that JJ the player was thirsting for revenge because he had a massive point to prove and that JJ the manager was virtually cowering in his office because he feared the worst.

In the player’s case this was a ridiculous, why would he wish harm on himself? In the manager’s case it was all too true, but then it was fairly rich for the media to make judgemental comments about a manager feeling under pressure when they were responsible for trowelling on another layer of pressure with their coverage.

Whenever a manager is in trouble the media scents blood and continue getting in the way with their questions, as if their questions actually change something. JJ knew that he had given them the perfect storm with his novel approach to the situation but the course of action sounded like a good idea at the time.

JJ started to dread the press conferences with their arduous, tedious nature, how was he supposed to say what was going to happen? Didn’t these idiots in the media already have a rough idea of what may happen? Weren’t they paid to cover football?

JJ was at the latest press conference table attempting to field the questions like a resolute opening batsman. He tried platitudes but the questions didn’t stop, he tried to put the barriers up with monosyllabic sentences but the questions didn’t stop.

He yearned for things to go back to normal, he yearned to be somewhere else. Fragments of images rushed around his head, a sunny training ground, the post match euphoria of a cup triumph, being at home with the kids. He struggled to suppress his actual thoughts about the situation and was tempted to utter the following rejoinder;

“Do you know something, it is difficult to respect most journalists. To be fair you are skilled in your work environment, you know what you’re doing but why were you allowed to wield such power? You have never had to cope with the strain of managing a football club, how dare you judge me!”

He thought better of that because he knew the journalists were scenting blood.

One of the muckracking tabloid types bowled knee-high yorkers

How do you prepare for playing yourself?” ….. “Have you prepared for the psychological strain of seeing yourself trying to beat yourself?”

The questioning caused something in JJ’s head to fall on its side. His expression and demeanour changed immediately.

The journalists could see that their questions had not only rendered someone speechless they had caused a man to look out from an unmistakably haunted expression, if his eyes could have spoken you wouldn’t want to know their soul-shredding secrets.

JJ thought he’d kept a lid on his emotions but it was clear from the TV news and the following day’s back pages that the press had noticed, something had changed at that press conference.

His wife noticed, his children noticed it, then his players noticed. In the days leading up to the match JJ the manager tried to motivate his squad but the words sounded meagre and felt hollow.

He knew that his gamble had almost failed, he tried to formulate new tactics and thought about trying new faces from the youth team but the end result would yield the same disappointing return.

Even if he avoided relegation this season, what about next season? Going through this again didn’t bare thinking about.

It doesn’t matter how hard we try to avoid the path of time, important dates still come to our paths. The months, weeks and days had receded to hours, minutes and seconds. It was the night before matchday and JJ felt like a husk of a man, an automaton following the indentations of a familiar pattern of behaviour.

In the sixty minutes before kick off he could only offer meagre words that echoed with a clang of an empty oil tanker. He fell back on platitudes, stay sharp, stop them scoring, take your chances. There was a new variation in the coaching;

“DON’T. LET. JJ. SCORE. WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T LET HIM SCORE. DO. NOT. GIVE. HIM. SPACE.”

There was a clear note of desperation in the voice but the players still believed, they wouldn’t let JJ the manager down, they knew how to handle JJ the player, they had been training with him for years. They knew that they had to keep the ball on his left side, he was weaker on the left side.

At half time United were losing two nil and both goals had been scored by JJ the player.

By the sixty fifth minute JJ the player had completed his hatrick and by the 80th minute he had set up a fourth goal.

When JJ the player was substituted in the 87th minute the crowd could only applaud.

JJ the manager was glad to hear the tributes but sorry to hear his personal abuse. JJ the manager focussed on the truly touching movement rather than the fact that he was “totally fucking useless”.

JJ the manager was too stunned to ride the wave of emotion. To lose is one thing, your personal pride suffers, but United had lost because of his alterego’s performance, an alterego that used to play for his club no less.

He was the first manager in football history to have been beaten himself.

No amount of mental preparation could prepare one for such a scenario. Nothing can prepare you for shaking hands with yourself after you’ve beaten yourself in a football match.

As he was about to offer himself a platitude of congratulation when…….The rush of consciousness warmed him.

It had only been a dream.

IT HAD ONLY BEEN A DREAM!

Thankfully it had all been a dream!

A split second later he realised that he was awake in actual reality, that he could stretch out and feel the duvet, In a split second he realised that it was a Sunday, yes a Sunday.

Oh the relief, and it was a sunny day. A splitsecond later….

Sunday!

Sunday!

Last Sunday!

So it had only been a week since his old teammate Pete Davies had relegated him.

He may have been saved from the metaphysical nightmare of his dream but he had still been relegated in the penultimate game of the season by his old teammate, was there ever a time that we laughed together on the training ground?

There was nothing more wretched than that. JJ, the hero of the terraces, was the first manager to have relegated United for thirty eight years. He’d been told his job was safe but that’s just a collection of words at the end of the day.

John Jenkins, record appearance holder, remarkable goalscorer, relegated manager.

Then he remembered that there was a board meeting on Tuesday, would the board have had a change of heart?

At that precise post-dream second he wasn’t sure if he cared.

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