Frank Dawson's face darkened, along with Del Dunne's. `Well I've done nothing wrong,' he said quickly

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The Independent Online
W ESTCHESTER City were one of those football clubs they should start up a separate division for, a sort of Division- One-and-a-Half. Like many of those clubs based in industrial centres who had their moments before the arrival of the maximum wage, they had lived on winning the FA Cup once in the black-and-white days. The city's 200,000 population were now interested in more modern diversions, such as the installation of satellite dishes, and they found better things to do than watch football when the team weren't doing so well. Crowds had fluctuated over the past 20 years as they spent a season here in the top flight and three there in the underworld.

Thanks to grants and some creative accounting, they had built one towering new stand, which looked down smugly on the other three shabby edifices like the big brother of the family who has made good. In its gut, thick carpet embroidered with the club crest covered all the dirt which had been swept under it and and led to the manager's office. Tracksuited, Frank Dawson sat in his threadbare upholstered chair at his matching Office World desk, an MFI shelf of Rothmans Football Yearbooks at his shoulder.

An old streamer reading "Happy Xmas" hung above the door and a few impersonalised printed greetings cards from other football clubs littered his desk. On it also stood a miniature plastic Terry Venables- endorsed Christmas tree (as seen on Sky TV) and a framed picture of Frank lifting the Cup for Megcastle United in 1968. Frank took comfort from that fresh-faced image, smiling and happy. It was not the face that looked back at him every morning, the etched lines betraying a 25-year managerial career of care, struggle and deviousness that also took in an expensive failed marriage.

At a sink in the corner, dumping tea bags from polystyrene cups into a bin, was Mark Johnson. Five years ago he was a middling but thoughtful midfield player with Westchester and now he was Frank's assistant - the club were facing relegation and he was cheap. Mark was the buffer between the players and the manager and, despite the influence of his boss, still a study in optimism and enthusiasm. He was making his umpteenth plea of the season.

"I've been talking to Jason," Mark said. "He really feels he needs more support up front. We're just not getting enough bodies in the box.

"Perhaps we should buy a striker, Frank. We've got these three big matches coming up over Christmas and they are all against other teams in the bottom six. It might just lift us out of it."

"Bull", was Frank's considered response.

"We'll never get him, will we?" Mark wondered, surprised.

"No - what Jason's saying is bull. He just needs to pull his finger out," Frank said firmly.

The in-depth tactical discussion was interrupted by the ringing of the telephone. When Frank picked it up, Mark could just make out the mangled north London tones of Del Dunne. He recognised that "All right my son?" immediately.

"I'm sure you're right, Del," Frank said after they had exchanged the usual footballing pleasantries of "How are you, you old tosser?" and instinctively dropped their voices while the real business was done. "It's a lot of money. Yes, I'm sure it will be for the best all round."

As Frank replaced the receiver, Mark's brow furrowed. "What did Jason's agent want?" he asked.

"What you've got to remember, Mark, is that he's not just Jason's agent," Frank replied. "He deals with lots of players."

Now the creases were gone from Mark's forehead. "You are going to buy a new striker, then. Good on yer, Frank."

"Westchester City will certainly be in the marketplace with regard to a striker," Frank announced in his best press conference managerspeak.

IT WAS the Saturday before Christmas and the dressing-room was thick with apprehension as the Westchester players changed slowly into their kit -as if by doing so they could postpone the moment. Only the odd wisecrack of the club captain, Joe McInnes, punctuated the nervous depression. "Sex is like cards, you know," he was telling one player. "You either need a good partner or a good hand." But it was all right for him. Joe, suited but not booted, had managed to time his three-match suspension for the holiday programme so he did not have to take part in the battle.

A few players grumbled in sympathy with each other about having to travel to an away game on Christmas night and wondered if they would be there in time to see Indecent Proposal on the telly, at least that scene with Demi Moore on the kitchen floor. Others leafed through the sales catalogue that served as the match programme. They did not study the stats page for long; it showed them four points adrift at the bottom of the Premiership. They had scored only 17 goals in 18 games, with Jason Sharpe having managed nine of them.

The door burst open and in lurched a flushed Frank Dawson, ready with his incisive team talk. "Right. This lot today are worse than you so if you don't stuff them my plonker's a bloater," he said. "Go out there and be first. Earn the right to play and get stuck in. Oh, and enjoy it."

The players rose without relish and filed into the tunnel, where, as the clatter of studs on concrete grew, Frank broke from his usual routine of urging each and every player to "go on my son" and pulled Jason aside. "Just a little late tactical adjustment today, Jason," he said. "I want you to play wide on the right. I've told Tommy to switch to the middle."

"But boss, we haven't worked on it, and I've scored all my goals down the middle," Jason protested.

"That's the whole point," Frank said. "If you're surprised, they will be too. They'll be expecting you to play down the middle. It's all the rage on the continent. All this 4-4-2 stuff is history. We've got to pull defences out of shape."

Jason shrugged. One thing an English professional footballer learns, if he wishes to remain an English professional footballer, is not to reason why. Out he went: he got stuck in and he earned the right to play but he didn't enjoy it one bit. From the dug-out, Mark Johnson began urging Jason to move into the middle until Frank appraised him of his master plan. Tommy missed two sitters set up by pin-point crosses from Jason, and Westchester were beaten 2-0.

The protests of Mark and Jason grew less strident as Frank persisted with the change of tactics over the holiday period. He was, after all, vindicated, he said, by Tommy scoring twice in two games - the 3-1 defeat on Boxing Day and the 1-1 home draw scrambled with a last-gasp goal the following Saturday.

But worse was to come. On New Year's Day, Westchester were beaten 4-0 away from home and the following Saturday they lost in the third round of the FA Cup, at the hands of an Endsleigh League First Division side. Jason was again a peripheral figure, losing the player he was marking at a corner to concede a late goal.

For disillusioned boards of directors, January is the sacking season. August dreams of silverware are but a distant memory and the only prospect is of a three-month slog for survival. Frank Dawson knew he had to take drastic action. One outgoing phone call to Del Dunne led to plenty incoming.

The most promising came from the chairman of Megcastle United, an old friend of Frank's. They had, after all, hit the West End of London together that May night in 1968 with the FA Cup in the back of a taxi. They laughed about how they nearly left it there. The call was soon followed by one from the Megcastle manager, Bill Gray. Then Frank phoned his own chairman. Thus were Jason and Mark Johnson summoned to Frank's office, now stripped of tacky Christmas cheer.

"I'm having to let you go, Jason," Frank announced. His one-time star striker, now without a goal in five games, exchanged baffled looks with Mark. "We've had an offer of pounds 4m for you from Megcastle, and both the chairman and I think it's for the best if we accept it. You'll be well set up, Jason."

"But boss . . . I really think we could get something going here," Jason said. He had not taken in the magnitude of the move. Still naive and with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy, he was more concerned about his happiness and the team's well-being. "We're a young squad. We can pull through this," Mark chipped in. "If we only put Jason back in the middle and bought him a partner, I still think we could stay up."

Frank interrupted their arguments. "Sorry boys, my hands are tied," he said. "And Mark, if you're ever going to be anything more than a buffer in this business you'll have to learn that sometimes managers have to make un . . . what's the word, unpalatable decisions. It goes with the territory. We have to sell to buy - I'm afraid we're accepting the offer."

Westchester City were already relegated by the time April arrived. It was with great regret, the club statement read, that Frank Dawson was leaving by mutual consent. The statement went on to say that he had done as well as could be expected having been unable to attract new players despite the money available. The remaining two years of his contract - worth about pounds 200,000, the papers said - would be paid in full.

MEGCASTLE United were one of those clubs they started the Premiership for; one of those for whom they might even one day start up a Premiership Elite. There had been hard times here and there between the six FA Cups and four League titles but nothing the odd record transfer signing hadn't rectified. Their popularity went far beyond the 750,000 residents of their own city and spread via satellite into the suburban semis half a nation away.

Sponsorship, merchandising and TV money had contributed to a steeply symmetrical, three-tiered 50,000-seat stadium curving coherently, all joined in embrace like a family of lottery winners. On the halfway line, in the eaves, was the manager's office, a temple of shag-pile splendour. In the chair (bought at World of Leather, and not in the sale), behind the walnut desk, blazered, collared and tied, sat Frank Dawson. His seat offered him a panorama - though that word brought him out in a cold sweat - of the stadium. An oak cabinet behind him was filled with cut glass and other tokens of esteem from those grateful for his presence at their various functions. Christmas cards signed by debs and celebs, many of whom were featured shaking Frank's hand in pictures hung from the wall, took up every nook and cranny. An elaborately decorated Norwegian pine occupied a corner.

Next to it, at a custom-built bar, pouring Remy Martin five-star into two crystal brandy glasses, stood Del Dunne.

"Think I'll phone Mark," Frank said. "Just to wish him season's greetings." He touched the buttons that he recalled made up the numbers of the Westchester City manager's office and pressed another to put the call through the telephone's speaker.

"Mark Johnson," came a voice after a few rings. Frank announced himself with an "All right my son?" "Happy Christmas. Long time no speak."

"Actually, I was going to give you a call, Frank," Mark said. "I'm as well as can be expected, seeing that we've got three matches over Christmas against teams in the top six and we need nine points to get near the play- offs. But I think we can do all right. These boys here really want to learn and are a pleasure to work with. They don't seem to have been tainted too much by you, Frank."

"You always did have touching enthusiasm, Mark. I liked that," Frank said. "But surely you can't still be upset with me?" Now he was smiling. Del Dunne set down a brandy glass in front of Frank and took his leisure on a Sanderson's sofa, mirroring the manager's smile.

"Upset? Well, you sell our best striker, then take us down. And then, somehow you land the biggest job in the country," Mark said contemptuously.

"I thought the chairman was going to let me have the money for new players, didn't I?" Frank said. "And they remembered me fondly here at Megcastle as a man who had lifted the FA Cup for them. Besides, they needed someone who could get the best out of Jason after he went so long without scoring at the end of last season. Still struggling, but he'll come good now he's moved back into the centre."

"Oh yes, I've read all that," Mark said. "You made sure of it in your Sunday Scum column. Haven't seen anything about Del Dunne's part in it all, though.

"Del is just a business acquaintance, Mark. Nothing more," Frank replied.

"I think you should know that I have had the Premiership inquiry on to me," Mark went on, with steel in his voice. "I haven't told them anything so far, but they are becoming persistent."

Now Frank's face darkened, along with Del Dunne's. "Well I've done nothing wrong," he said quickly. "Besides, I'm not the only one making what I can while I can. It's a precarious business."

"I'm sure they'll agree," Mark replied. "But as a buffer, you learn certain things, and it is your duty to pass them on . . ."

"Look, you got my job, didn't you? What more do you want?" Frank said, his voice now shaky.

"Well," Mark said, then paused. He could sense the nervousness at the other end of the phone. "As you said, Jason's still struggling and my chairman's made pounds 2m available for a new striker. We need a body in the box. Unless you fancy being one, Frank?"