An English football manager injured in a freak accident is fighting for his life in a hospital in Qatar. Bobby Manager, the former West Ham and Liverpool boss, is in a critical condition after he was struck by an experimental radio-controlled cloud at the Al-Wakrah stadium in Doha. Doctors say that the 38 year old is in a deep coma and that, while there was some evidence of activity in the brain, his chances of survival are “no more than 25%.”

After a modest playing career, Manager shot to fame in 2010 when he was the surprise choice to replace Avram Grant at Upton Park. He secured a respectable mid-table finish in his debut season, led the Hammers to fifth place in 2012 and took them to the Europa League Final the following year. Champions League success at Liverpool followed in 2014, but Manager was forced to leave England when controversial former owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks sold him to the Qatar Football Federation. 

Authorities say that Manager was about to conduct an examination of the pitch at the Al-Wakrah ahead of his first game in charge of the national side when he was injured. Witnesses claim that the radio-controlled cloud, “fell out of the sky like a fucking meteorite,” and struck him as he stepped out of the tunnel. 

“Now then, young man,” barked a loud voice. “There’ll be no codding at this club. Even from you. Get up.”

I opened my eyes. Wet. Mud. Grass.  And pain. So much pain. My head felt like an iron safe with a crowbar pushed into its door, with someone rhythmically pushing, straining, working the hinge. 

A pair of hands slipped under my armpits and I was hauled to my feet. 

“Oh God,” I groaned. “What happened?”

“You can call me Gaffer in front of the players, son.” said the voice. “You got hit on the head by a ball. You made the mistake of standing in the way of John Robertson, that’s what you did.”

I looked around and a thick-set man with short, stumpy legs grinned sheepishly at me.

“Sorry, Bobby!” he said, and darted off. 

I shook my head like a wet dog, turned around and looked at the man in front of me. He stood straight-backed in the mud, jaw sticking out, dark hair slicked back and a squash racket in his hand. He smiled and ragged laughter lines tore across his face like cracks in dry earth. It was him. There was no question. It was him. 

“What’s wrong with you, lad?” he said. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“You’re Brian Clough,” I spluttered. 

“Aye, and you’re Robert Manager. Now that we’ve done our introductions all over again, do you think you could stop staring at me funny, brush the mud off your face and get on with coaching my players?”

“What?” I said.

“Coach the bleeding players, Robert! Honest to God, for all of Peter’s ways, he never forgot where he was halfway through a training session. How hard did that ball hit you?” He turned around to where the players were scrambling through a five-a-side game in the mud. “Oi! John bleeding Robertson! You’ve just brained my new assistant manager! That’s coming out of your wages. And put that bloody cigarette out!” He turned back to me.

“But...this is...Qatar?”

“Guitar? You’ll want Frank Clark for that, Robert. He left three years ago.” 

“Three years ago? What year is it now?”

He stepped forward and cuffed me hard around the head. 

“Has that knocked some sense into you?”

I bent over in pain and clutched my reddening ear. 

“Ow!”

“For the avoidance of any bleeding doubt, Robert, it’s 1982. You’re on the Nottingham Forest training ground and of all the people I could have replaced Peter Taylor with, I’m beginning to think that you were the worst of a bad bunch. Now either coach my players or fuck off back to the dressing-room  and see a doctor.”

Not unreasonably, I elected to fuck off. I was confused. So confused. I had been at the Al Wakrah Stadium. I had picked my team. I had just told them that this was going to be the start of a bright and exciting new era. I’d just about got that whole Liverpool thing behind me. And now what was happening? 

I trudged off the training pitch, rubbing my head and trying to get a grip of myself. 

“Mr Manager?” said a soft female voice from what seemed like somewhere inside my head.

I span around in the mud. There was no-one there.

“Mr Manager!” 

“Where are you?” I hissed.

There was a pause. 

“I’m somewhere inside your head.”

“Oh God!” I wailed, breaking out in a sweat. “I’ve gone crackers, haven’t I? I always knew this would happen!” Thirty yards in front of me, a groundsman looked up from his wheelbarrow and started to stare. 

“No, no. Stop panicking, you foolish man. You’re in a coma.”

“Who are you?!” I shouted. “Who are you and what are you doing in my head?” I asked again as I scuttled around the back of a bush.

“Oh come on, Mr Manager. I can’t believe you don’t recognise my voice.”

“Karren?”

“That’s Ms Brady to you, thank you.”

I dropped to my knees, the wet mud sloshing up my shorts as I hit the ground, cold and wet. And real. 

“This is impossible,” I whispered. “I was in Qatar.”

“You’re still in Qatar,” said the voice. “You’re in a hospital in the city with extensive head injuries. And you’re in a coma.”

“My God...the cloud. It seemed like such a logical and sensible response to the adverse weather conditions. What have we done?”

“That’s hardly your primary concern, I’m afraid.”

“Are you with me in Qatar? That’s...that’s actually amazing. I can’t believe you came to visit me in hospital,” I said in wonder. “I know that we shared so much at Upton Park, but after the way I’d left...”

“Oh, don’t be silly. I didn’t come to visit you. I am you.”

“What?”

“Well, that is to say, I’m a part of you. I’m a manifestation of a section of your consciousness buried so deep that the pre-fix ‘sub’ barely does it credit.”

“Huh?”

“Never mind. You, Mr Manager, are in a lot of trouble. Your injuries are so extensive that it’s very likely that you will never wake up. And that would be bad for both of us. However, there is just a chance, a slight chance, that you can still come through this. It is of paramount importance that your brain continues to function. And that’s why I’m here. I am the part of your subconscious that knows what is at stake and that really, really doesn’t want the power grid to be shut down. And the only way I can keep the grid up is by keeping you ticking over. Keeping you active. In effect, I will set you challenges, the completion of which will keep your neurons firing.”

“What kind of challenges?”

“There are things that were supposed to happen, things that did not happen. People who can be saved. Wrongs that can be made right. That sort of thing. You know the drill.”

“I really don’t. How will I know what to do?” 

“That, Mr Manager, is part of the challenge. I would hardly be able to keep your neurons firing if I simply told you the answer, would I? Just be Bobby Manager. Look, examine, assess and make good. You did it at West Ham. You did it at Liverpool. You can do it in 1982 as well.”

“I can’t do it! It’s impossible! I don’t know any of the players here. I was only a kid in 1982.”

“I’m not going to pretend that it will be easy,” purred Karren. “But you are the man who nearly won a European trophy with West Ham. Even if it was the pointless one that’s more of a burden than a blessing.”

“You won’t let that lie, will you?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Okay,” I agreed. “But what happens if I fail the challenge?”

“You will die, Mr Manager. And all this will end.”

“Ah,” I said. “I see.”

“Good luck, Mr Manager.”

“Thank you. I think.”

“Thanks for what?” barked a gruff voice. “What are you doing back there, you silly sod? You having a crap?”

“What?”

The groundsman peered around the corner of the bush and scowled. 

“The Manager won’t like that, you know. He’s got to be the maddest person here. You go crapping in the bushes and talking to yourself about challenges and he’ll see that as a threat.”

“Right,” I said, getting to my feet. “You’re right. Thanks.” To save further inquisition, I ran to the dressing-room , piled through the door and got straight into the shower. The pounding in my head was calming down. Soon it would fade away entirely. I would come to learn in time that this was a sort of after-shock to a leap. For now, I just thanked my stars for the sweet relief from the pain. 

Under the steaming water, I tried to gather my thoughts. Could this all be real? Could I really be lying in a bed in Qatar with a machine keeping me alive, while I stood here in 1982 trying to lather up a bar of soap that felt like a house brick? 

The feelings were certainly very real. When Brian had hit me, it had felt like a hit. When the muddy water had sloshed up my shorts, it had felt like muddy water sloshing up my pants. And besides, I reasoned, what was the alternative to believing Karren? There didn’t appear to be an exit door to take me home. I was here, I was in 1982. I resolved to take her at her word and try to fix whatever was broken. 

That, of course, turned out to be Brian himself. As he swiftly demonstrated. 

“What’s the water like?” came his voice from outside my cubicle. 

“It’s hot. Really, really hot,” I replied. 

“Aye,” he said. “I’ll be the judge of that.” The door swung open and he pushed me out of the stream of water, up against the tiles. 

“Oi!” I shouted. 

“Oi yourself,” he said. “Come on, move over. Plenty of room for two. My mam used to have us eight to the tub in the front room, this is like sharing an Olympic swimming pool compared to that. You’re not a sissy, are you?”

“No,” I said, covering myself with my hands. 

“Good,” he said, soaping himself up. “We’ve had enough of that round here.”

“Erm...” I said. “That’s not cool.” I stepped out of the cubicle. 

He stared at me as I went.

“Cool? Cool? You sure you’re not a sissy? Never mind.” He raised his voice. “What did you think today? Of the lads?”

I dried myself down outside. 

“I didn’t see enough to make any conclusions, Brian.”

“Gaffer to you, son.”

“Gaffer. Right. I didn’t see enough of them.”

“No need to be polite, Robert. They’re crap, aren’t they? I know what you’re thinking. They’re crap. It’s what Peter left me. He’s out now. He’s free. He’s probably eating sardines from the tin on the porch in Majorca, the cheeky bugger, while I have to clear up his mess. You have to help, mind. And there’s a lot of it. Mess, mess, mess.”

He began to sing to himself, something about sailors, gurgling his chorus and laughing away. I politely dried and dressed myself and waited for him to finish a particularly fruity bit about the women of Santo Domingo.

“Have you ever been to Santo Domingo, Robert?” he called through the door.

“No, gaffer.”

“Neither have I. But it sounds like a hell of a place. Now let’s get to work.”

He emerged from the shower, wrapped a towel around himself and motioned for me to follow him. 

“Come on, time for our meeting with the press.”

“Aren’t you going to get dressed?” I asked. 

“No, there’s nothing like air drying yourself. Besides, it’s only Duncan.” And with that, he was out of the door. I scurried along, trying to keep up. 

“Now then young man!” he shouted at a timid looking chap in the corridor. “It’s time you met my new assistant. Robert, this is Duncan from the local rag. Duncan, this is Peter’s replacement.”

“Pleased to meet you, Robert,” said the young man with his hand outstretched. 

“You can call me, Bobby,” I said. “Everyone else does.”

“Step into my office, Duncan,” brayed Brian, motioning to a door. 

“Isn’t your office at the stadium?” I asked. 

“I’m Brian Clough,” he said. “Everywhere is my office if I say it’s my office.”

It was a point we made as delicately as we could to the janitor, and in his defence, he took it with the resigned air of one who had been forced out of his room many times before and would be many times again. 

“Now then, Duncan,” said Brian as he sat down on the janitor’s chair and put his bare, dripping feet up on the desk. “Time to earn your keep.”

“You don’t pay me, Mr Clough.”

“Don’t pay you? What do you think this is, eh? Cheeky bugger. How many stories are you going to write about me if I don’t talk to you? How are you going to write your great big book about me if I don’t talk to you?”

“I’ve said before, Mr Clough, I’m not going to write a book. I haven’t got time.”

“Aye, you will do, son. You will do. Now shut your trap and pour us a drink.” He leaned around and slapped the fusebox on the wall with the back of his hand. The cover fell open with a clang and revealed a large bottle of Teacher’s whiskey with a ‘Manager of the Month’ ribbon around the neck.

Duncan sighed, stood up and retrieved the bottle. Then he walked across to the opposite corner of the room and fished three heavy glass tumblers out of a mop bucket. 

“Are they clean?” I asked. 

“Of course they’re clean,” grunted Brian, as he wiped a pile of suds off his shoulders and pushed them on the floor.  “That’s had bleach in it. Clean as clean can be.”

“I’ll give them a rinse, though,” I said. “Just to be sure.”

“Whatever keeps you happy, Robert,” he snorted in derision. “I can see you’re going to be high maintenance, aren’t you? But when you’re finished with the washing up, maybe we can get to business, eh?”

I washed the glasses out in the sink and handed them to Duncan who shuddered and then poured out measures so generous they were practically philanthropists. 

“Oi!” shouted Brian. “What’s that? Is the bleeding tide out? Get that glass filled up, young man.”

Duncan obeyed and then carefully handed over the tumbler, trying not to let the drink slosh over the side. 

“That’s better,” said Brian, taking a long swig. “Now, Robert, the team. What do we need?”

“I think every team needs a focal point in the attack,” I said. “A Carlton Cole character, powerful and bold, enthusiastic and selfless. That kind of thing.”

Duncan and Brian exchanged a look.

“Who’s this Charlton Cole? Who does he play for?”

“Erm...he doesn’t. Not yet. It’s a...erm...figure of speech.”

Brian sighed. 

“I haven’t got time for figures of speech, Robert. I need players. Good players. Pete could spot a player. I need you to spot a player. And I need to put some bloody clothes on. I can’t believe you pulled me out of the shower for this. Idiots. ”

He stood up, drained the glass and strode out of the room. 

I looked at Duncan.

“Is he always like that?”

“No,” said Duncan. “Sometimes he can be really difficult.”

Brian wasn’t the only thing that was difficult. The fixture computer had given us a horrible start to the season. We beat West Ham and we beat Brighton, but defeats to Manchester United, Liverpool and Aston Villa left our title challenge in tatters before the county cricket season had even finished. 

We were on the bus coming back from Villa Park when Brian came back from his usual seat at the front and slumped down next to me, ashen-faced. 

“Robert.” he said formally, alcohol on his breath.

“Gaffer,” I said. “Are you okay?”

“I’ve hurt my hand,” he said quietly. He held up a set of knuckles, purpling with fresh bruises. “I bumped into Steve Hodge’s head.”

At the back of the bus, I became aware of a soft moaning, like a feverish child. 

“Ah,” I said. “I wondered what that was.”

“I’ve shot it, Robert,” he said quietly. 

“No, you haven’t,” I said. “You’re just readjusting. You need to build a new team, start all over again. But you can do it. You did it at Derby, you did it here.”

“I can’t do it without Peter,” he said mournfully. “The stupid, lazy bastard. He went soft, you know. In the old days, he’d watch a player. He’d follow a player, he’d make sure he knew every bleeding thing about the player before he told me to sign him. And then at the end, I don’t think he was even watching them anymore. He just came in, put his feet up, read the Racing Post and then shot off after lunch. But Robert, God...he could really pick a player. If I could have him back, refreshed and ready, then there’s nothing we couldn’t do here.”

“Maybe he didn’t feel appreciated?”

“What are you, a bloody psychologist?”

“No, I’m just...”

“I know what you are, Robert Manager. I’ve got your bloody number. Too many books that’s your problem.”

“Too many books?” I said.

“Aye, and not one of them has taught you anything about football. What was that nonsense you were jabbering about in training this week? The Makalaka role?” 

“The Makélélé role,” I muttered. 

“Aye, we don’t need fancy names. We were doing five in the middle years ago. And what was the other bit? Winged backs? Load of old rot. Defenders defend first. Fancy stuff can wait. You’re just like O’Neill. Too many books and too much lip. I can’t think why I gave you the job. In fact, I can’t even remember giving you the job.”

I turned to face him and sniffed the air pointedly.

“That’s not entirely surprising,” I said. 

He stiffened and stared me down, his reddened eyes filled with rage. 

“You know your problem?” I said, figuring that I was in too deep now to retreat anyway. “No-one’s ever brave enough to tell you when you’re being an idiot.”

The background hubbub around the coach died. Even Hodge’s whimpering fell silent. 

“No-one tells you that you’re an idiot and no-one tells you that you’re drinking too much. You haven’t shot it, you’re still Brian Clough, but you’re on a slippery slope because you’ve stopped caring and you’ve driven away the only person who could keep you in check. Without Taylor, you won’t ever win the league again. You won’t ever be bold enough to sign the players who win you titles, the nasty ones, the Larry Lloyds, because you haven’t got Peter here to tell you it’s going to be okay. You could rebuild this team in a matter of months if you just showed a bit of humility and brought him back into the fold. But you’re too bloody stubborn.”

I stopped talking, my heart pounding, my chest heaving in and out. Brian stared at me, not in anger, but in fascination.

“No-one’s ever been brave enough to give me a bollocking,” he said in a faraway voice.   

“Well...” I said. “I thought it needed saying.”

“You make some very interesting points, Robert. I’ve certainly taken them on board.”

“Good,” I said and folded my arms. “That was the intention.”

“Now allow me to retort,” he said. And everything went black.

I woke up in the bus depot in Nottingham four hours later with my nose plastered all over my face. 

Something had changed in Brian though. He was quieter and more studious. He even spent some time on the training pitch the following week. And we won the next game as well, beating Watford 2-0. But I knew now what I had to do. I knew what Karren wanted me to do. 

I met Peter Taylor in a Happy Eater near Derby a couple of nights later. He hadn’t been hard to find. Duncan had his home phone number. He took a bit of convincing, not least because he described me as the man who had his rightful job, but he eventually agreed to meet up. When I arrived, he was already tucking into a fried breakfast, puffing from a cigarette between mouthfuls. 

“Manager,” he said when he saw me. “Sit down. Try the eggs, they’re very good.”

“I’m okay, thanks,” I said. “Just a coffee for me.”

“Suit yourself,” he said. “So, how are you getting on with him?”

“Look at my face,” I said with a smile. 

Peter examined my nose, still several inches wider than its original size and still an ugly colour.

“He got you good there, son,” he said, admiringly. “What did you do?”

“I told him that he was an idiot.”

Peter laughed and blew chunks of egg across the table. He jammed his cigarette in his mouth to stop the flow and began to cough uncontrollably. When he finally settled himself, he had tears in his eyes. 

“Oh, that’s priceless. That’s absolutely priceless. You’re lucky he didn’t kill you and feed you to the trout!”

“He wants you back, Peter,” I said.

“He doesn’t,” said Peter. “We’ve taken it as far as we could. He doesn’t trust my eye anymore. He doesn’t trust me anymore. There are too many people in the mix now, too many hangers-on. He’s lost sight of himself as a football manager, he’s more of a celebrity.”

“He knows what he is,” I said. “He’s close to quitting. He says he can’t do it without you.”

“Well,” said Peter, wiping his lips with a napkin, “he needs to get used to it. Besides, I might have an offer of work myself.”

“Where?” I asked. 

He lit another cigarette and leaned across the table with a glint in his eye. 

“Derby!” he said. 

“Don’t do it,” I told him. “You’re just like him, Peter. You can’t do it on your own. And besides, you’ll break his heart. Go back to Forest. Go back to Brian. Together, you can win the league again. Individually, you’ll never hit those heights.”

Peter looked thoughtful.

“I couldn’t do it unless he apologised,” he said. “And he’d never apologise.”

“What does he need to apologise for?”

“For everything!” burst Peter. “For everything! For the way he was with money, for the way he was with the press, for the way he was with the players and for the way he was with me!”

“And if he does that,” I said, “you’ll come back?”

“That’s an ‘if’ the size of John Robertson’s arse, son. Could you make it happen?”

“I think I could,” I said. “He really wants you back. He’ll be pragmatic. He’ll have to be pragmatic. Will you apologise to him?”

“For what?” laughed Peter.

I thought about this.

“I don’t think it will really matter,” I said. “Pick something. Pick anything. Pick whatever you think he’d want. And then see it as the cost of doing business.”

The trap was set. Two days later, as we left the training field, I asked Brian if we could have a chat in his office.

“Are you quitting?” he grunted. “You may as well, you’re no use to man nor beast.”

“Let’s just go to your office, Gaffer.”

“All right, son,” he said. “Hang on.” He walked over to a tree and started tapping the trunk. Tap, tap, tap. 

“What are you doing?” I asked. 

“Shut up,” he said. “I’m listening.”

Tap, tap, tap, TOP!

“There it is!” he exclaimed. He pulled his keys out of his pocket and pulled a section of bark off the tree. “Glued that on myself,” he grinned. Behind the bark was a large hole into which he thrust his hand and retrieved a large bottle of Scotch. 

“Why have you hidden a bottle of whiskey in a tree, gaffer?”

He looked at me furtively. 

“You can’t trust anyone round here,” he whispered. 

“Come on, gaffer,” I said. We walked to his office. As we reached the door, I stepped back and allowed him to enter the room first. 

“What’s this, Robert?” he laughed. “Are you finally learning some respect?” He stepped through the door. “Perhaps you and I....oh, you bastard. What’s he doing here?”

I followed him into the room. At his desk, dressed in his best suit, sat Peter Taylor. I stood back and waited for the magic to happen. 

“Get this prat out of my office, Robert!” roared Brian. “This circus doesn’t need any more bloody clowns!”

Peter glared daggers at me. 

“I thought you said he wanted me back?” he shouted. “You set me up!”

“Want you back?” sneered Brian. “I’d rather have a dose of the clap!”

“You think I’d come back and work for you?” blasted Peter. “I’d rather French kiss Archie Gemmill!”

They both stopped shouting when they heard the lock click shut. 

“You’re staying in there!” I shouted from the other side of the keyhole. 

“What?!” they shouted back.

“You’re both staying in there until you sort this out,” I said. “You need each other and you’re both too thick to figure it out. You can stay there, you can get it all out of your systems and I’ll open the door when you agree to work with each again. Oh, and Brian? I quit.”

“Quit?!” yelled Brian. “I’ll have you bloody shot!”

“Not if I get there first!” bellowed Peter. 

And that was only the start. They yelled at me, they yelled at each other, they yelled at the gods, a group of people they viewed as being only slightly more important than themselves. I pulled a chair over to the door and sat with my back against it. And then there was a long silence. 

At first I wondered if they might have killed each other and were now lying on the rug, their hands locked around each other’s throats, eyes bulging as they took their war beyond this mortal coil and geared up for eternal war on some other plane of existence. But then I heard the soft pop of a bottle of Scotch being opened. 

It all came out after that. Brian told Peter that he was lazy and he’d lost his edge. Peter told Brian that he’d taken his eye off the ball and was spending too much time on television. Brian shouted at Peter for writing a book about him. Peter shouted at Brian for being greedy with money. There was a particularly vicious and politically incorrect exchange of views over Justin Fashanu.

But soon their voices softened. Talk turned to the future. There was a conversation about money and the lack of it. There was a debate over the new stand that had plunged the club into so much debt. But there was talk too of the young talent in the squad that could be cultivated. Talk of Steve Hodge as a man who might one day play for England.

It was another two hours before there was a quiet knock from the inside of the office. 

“You can open the door now,” said Peter softly. “It’s over.”

I stood up, dragged the chair across the floor and unlocked the door. 

Brian thrust a glass full of scotch into my hand with an unsteady hand. 

“Here you go, Robert. This is your leaving drink. And it’s a...it’s a thank you drink as well.”

“Yep,” said Peter cheerfully. “We’re going back into business together! 

“Just like old times!” laughed Brian. “I’m the shop-front, he’s the goods in the back.”

“I’m the one who finds the players, he’s the one who makes them play!” chuckled Peter. “Just like it always was.”

“I’m really happy for you,” I said. “Whether it works or not, well, that doesn’t matter. What really counts is that you two are friends again. Imagine if you hadn’t had this reconciliation. You’d have gone on hating each other, this partnership would have festered. And then one day...” I tried not to look at Peter, “...one of you would have dropped dead and it would have been too late.”

“That’s a bit dramatic, isn’t it?” said Peter with a look of distaste.

“Aye,” nodded Brian. “Are you sure you’re not a sissy?”

I grinned. 

“No, I’m not a sissy. And that’s another thing, you shouldn’t judge people on their sexual preferences. It’s the kind of thing that will tarnish your...” My head started to pound.

“Tarnish my what?” laughed Peter. 

Bang. Bang. Bang. The ache in my head intensified. 

“Well done, Mr Manager,” said a soft female voice. “Well done.”

I put the drink down on the table and gripped it for support as my legs seemed to melt underneath me. 

“Are you okay, Robert?” asked Brian, as the room began to spin and the pain at the back of my head flowered into white hot agony. 

“Gxsrylll,” I burbled as I fell through the desk and slipped down, through the fibres of the carpet, through the foundations of the building, through the earth and the soil and the bedrock and into a swirling vortex of noise and colour. 

I was leaping. I was leaping through time and space. I hoped against hope that this leap would be my leap home. Oh boy, was I wrong.