Mike Haslet had been captain of Battleby Town for as long as anyone could remember, which, on a Saturday night in Battleby, wasn't very long.
His craggy chin, merging into a craggy nose, jutting out from under his craggy brow, made him look in profile not unlike Battleby Crags, the limestone cliffs which beetled over Battleby Town. He would have stood out anywhere, except in Battleby, where everyone else in the team looked much the same as he did, and it was hard to pick him out from all the other rough-hewn, rocky, craggy, beetling heroes who represented Battleby against allcomers but especially against Newcliff Rovers, their arch-rivals from down the road.
"You wanted to see me?" said Mike Haslet, opening the door to the chairman's room.
"Aye. Come in, Mike. Pull up a chair."
Old Bill Gradeley had been chairman of Battleby Town for as long as even he could remember, which was a very long time indeed when you had access to the back numbers of the Battleby Gazette. Bill Gradeley had full access to the back numbers of the Battleby Gazette. He was sole owner of the Battleby Gazette. He was also sole owner of Hobnails, the biggest disco in town, and the Fruit Palace, the biggest night-club in town, and Hadrian's Wall, the biggest casino in town, which had been opened personally for Bill Gradeley by Freddie Trueman in a moving ceremony lasting over three hours, most of it taken up by a long anecdote told by Freddie Trueman about Wes Hall, during which the rest of them had had a three-course dinner.
Mike Haslet pulled up a chair and sat down.
"You've probably heard the rumours about Rupert Murdoch taking over rugby league," said Bill Gradeley.
"Aye," said Mike.
"Do people take them seriously?" said Bill.
"Aye, some do. Some I know have even stopped taking t'Sun."
"Have they, by heck," said Bill Gradeley. "And have you stopped taking the Sun, Mike?"
"I never started," said Mike. "I've always been more of a Pigeon Fancier Weekly reader, meself."
This was a complete lie. Mike had read the Guardian for 20 years, but thought he might be made fun of if found out. He didn't even know if there was a paper called the Pigeon Fancier Weekly.
"Well, the rumours are all true," said Bill Gradeley. "Murdoch's taking over rugby league lock, stock and barrel. He's bought the whole caboodle. He's paid cash for the whole league. He's shrinking the whole thing into a super-TV league. He's merging Battleby Town with Newcliff Rovers to form a team called Battlecliff."
"Why?" said Mike Haslet. "What's in it for anyone?"
"Investment. Funds. Opportunity. Expansion. Resources will pour into rugby league, making it the biggest growth leisure activity ..."
"You've been talking to him," said Mike Haslet. "I can recognise Murdoch talk anywhere. A smokescreen of progress and improvement to cover up the greed and money-grabbing beneath. You've been got at. You're his man now."
"I've always been my own man," said Gradeley hotly. "Gradeleys have always been their own men, man and boy. We Gradeleys didn't get where we are by ..."
"Oh, spare me the Baden-Powell Scouting for Entrepreneurs team talk stuff!" said Mike Haslet, with a sudden burst of eloquence which showed that those years of Guardian-reading had not been wasted. "Tell me the worst. What's going to happen?"
"There'll been a new team called Battlecliff. You'll play under floodlights in brand new playing kit. It will be for TV cameras only - no audience. It will be beamed straight to the Far East. You will be captain. Your pay will be five times what it is now."
"Why the Middle East?"
"People in Malaysia are desperate for a straight game to gamble on. Murdoch wants to give it to them."
There was a pause. Then Mike spoke evenly and levelly. "Never. Never will I pull on a Murdoch shirt. Never, ever will I accept a penny from that man. I'd rather die."
Three months later, wearing what looked very like yellow pyjamas, Mike ran out on the pitch of Battleby Astrodome to the cheers of a few cameramen, leading the new team of Battlecliff in their first match, against Hull Castleford Rovers.
Tomorrow: can Mike Haslet destroy Murdoch from the inside? Or has his soul already been bought by Big Rupe? Don't miss tomorrow's desperate tussle!Reuse content