We will never know if Cesc Fabregas spat at the feet of Brian Horton, the assistant manager of Hull City, last Tuesday night. So, in the spirit of The Damned United film released on Friday – telling the story of Brian Clough's 44 days at Leeds United – let us fill in the historical gaps. David Peace's novel The Damned Utd is a gripping thriller written in his distinctive, quick-fire prose style. Dark and beguiling, it is much better than the film.
For the avoidance of doubt, and lawsuits, all the following is completely imagined. With apologies to Peace, here is a new (completely fictional) version of the story. This is Phil Brown's Damned Utd. It is Tuesday 17 March at the Emirates Stadium.
Hateful place, spiteful place. The stadium and the fans. The concrete and the glass. The mezzanine level podium and the Emirates gourmet burgers. No place for a team from east Yorkshire to come and win. No place for my Hull City to come and win an FA Cup tie.
That's what Big Sam told me.
But Big Sam's not here tonight, just me and Brian. Loyal Brian. Brian likes me. Brian believes in me. Brian helped me after Derby sacked me.
Down the Holloway Road in our luxury coach, nothing but the best for my lads. Through the gates, inside the stadium, into the belly of the beast. Arsenal officials everywhere. Parking the coach, unloading the kit, holding doors open. His officials, his stadium, his doors, his eyes everywhere.
Dirty Arsenal, hateful Arsenal.
Off the coach, down the corridor, round the corner, past the office. His office. Arsène's office, Arsène's desk, Arsène's chair. Arsène's dossiers on all the best young players from the Ivory Coast. Arsène's scouting reports. Arsène's sports nutrition recipe book.
He never bloody shakes hands. That's what Big Sam told me. Lucky if you get a bloody glass of wine after a game at this place.
"Gaffer, your microphone earpiece is ready to be fitted," says Brian. "And I've laid out your best jacket from Harvey Nichols in Leeds. We'll show these London buggers we've got a bit of style."
In the ear. Round my chin. In front of my mouth. The earpiece is in place. Sat next to the chairman in the stand. The cameras on me.
Not Sky Sports. Oh no, not bloody good enough for Sky Sports this game. Bloody Setanta for Hull City.
Arsène doesn't see you. Arsène stays away from the boardroom, away from the tunnel. Doesn't even acknowledge you, Philip Brown, born in South Shields, year of our Lord 1959. Doesn't acknowledge you exist.
Thirteen minutes gone. One-nil. Nicholas Jonathan Barmby. Brilliant little bloody Barmby. Brilliant bloody goal. Chairman going crazy next to me. Thinks we're going to Wembley now. This is it. This is it.
"Gaffer," says Brian's voice crackling in the earpiece, "Wenger's moaning at the referee. Won't bloody leave it alone. Says we're time-wasting. What should I do?"
What should he do? What should you do? Your destiny reaching out to you, Wembley calling. They don't teach this on the managers' course at Warwick University. Your decision, your call, no Big Sam here to help. You press the "speak" button on your two-way radio.
"Retaliate, Brian," you say, "retaliate."
Out the directors' box, down the stairs, through the tunnel. Into the dugout. Your dugout. Brian shouting at Arsène. You shouting at Geovanni. Never bloody tracks back. Down the tunnel at half-time. Stewards pushing, stewards shouting.
You tell your lads that they are 45 minutes away from Wembley, 45 minutes away from the biggest bloody game of their lives. Ricketts, Dawson, Ashbee, Barmby, Fagan, Gardner. Good lads, English lads, not like their mob. "Gaffer," says Brian. "Setanta want a word with you."
Not now, Brian. Not now, Setanta. History awaits.
Lost it 2-1. Lost it to Riley, lost it to Gallas, lost it to him. Him with his fists clenched, him hugging Pat Rice, him disappearing without a handshake. Back into the tunnel, players waiting, your players waiting, waiting for a fight. Their lot shouting in French, your lot answering in Yorkshire. French and Yorkshire. Yorkshire and French.
Then something said in Spanish from a kid in jeans and a hoodie. Except he's not just a kid. He's their kid. The kid. Their bloody captain dressed like a yob and shouting at Brian.
"Don't give me any of your Spanish nonsense," says Brian. "I've been there on holiday. Bloody average. Give me Cleethorpes any day. What did your lot do in the war, anyway? Hopeless. No bloody use to anyone. You were lucky to win Euro 2008. Penelope Cruz can't act neither. Salvador Dali? Don't make me laugh."
Splat. Someone has spat. Someone has spat at Brian's feet.
All hell has broken loose in the Emirates Stadium, Tuesday 17 March, year of our Lord 2009. There is shoving and pushing. Pushing and shoving. But not Phil Brown. Phil Brown is not there. Phil Brown is with the man from Setanta. Phil Brown is looking at the replays on the big flatscreen television. Phil Brown is telling the world. Phil Brown is telling Setanta's estimated one million subscribers.
He is telling them what he knows about Arsenal, about him, about Arsène. The words tumbling out. The earpiece still crackling in his pocket where he has left it. "Gaffer? Gaffer?" says Brian's tinny voice. "I've got Fabregas in a headlock. What should I do now?"
Slovaks should not put up too much of a fight
Fabio Capello said that he wanted to test his team against the best when they played Spain last month; Slovakia, whom England face on Saturday, are a completely different deal. "The Fighting Jondas" – for that is the Slovakian team's nickname – are like the spouse who gets the raw deal in a divorce. When Czechoslovakia divided the Czechs got Pavel Nedved and the Slovaks got Szilard Nemeth.
This friendly is intended to prepare England for the World Cup qualifier against Ukraine on 1 April. Fair enough, but Ukraine are 14th in the Fifa rankings and Slovakia are 53rd, just on the coat-tails of mighty Panama (51st) and Lithuania (52nd). They might be top of their 2010 World Cup qualifying group but let's just say that, after that rude awakening in Seville, Slovakia have been invited with a view to getting England back to winning ways.
Surely a Bridgman too far for Beckham?
Unless this was a very elaborate wind-up, the appointment of Andy Bridgman as a coach at Los Angeles Galaxy just about sums up that David Beckham misadventure. Bridgman's last job was as a police support community officer in Surrey and he coaches his local Crawley team, County Oak. On the other hand Beckham is at Milan with Kaka and Paolo Maldini, and aspires to play in the next World Cup finals.
Beckham can tell him about winning 108 caps for England. Bridgman can explain the details of the Horley neighbourhood watch scheme. Who says Galaxy are not in the big time?
Rooney flags it up
Saturday afternoon at Craven Cottage: Wayne Rooney gets sent off, punches corner flag. I'd say that's progress. Better than Wayne Rooney gets sent off, punches opponent.
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