Theorising that radio-controlled clouds could help Qatar manufacture a climate suitable for football, the authorities experimented... and nearly killed their national coach Bobby Manager with one. Manager awoke to find himself trapped in the past, facing challenges that were not his own, driven to change history for the better. His only guide on this journey is Karren Brady, or at least a subconscious manifestation of Karren Brady, who speaks to him in a voice that only Bobby can hear. And so Bobby Manager finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home.

“Hang on, lads,” called out a voice. “That looked a nasty one. You okay, son?”

I was absolutely not okay. My head throbbed and my bones ached. Leaping would take some getting used to. One minute I had been drinking whisky with Brian Clough and Peter Taylor, the next I had been hauled through a tear in the space-time continuum, dragged through an eternity of light and sound and then vomited up here, wherever here was. I shivered like a sickly kitten, disorientated and confused. Honestly, I hadn’t felt this disturbed since the morning I found the key to Avram Grant’s secret cupboard.

I opened my eyes and then quickly snapped them shut against the intense sun. I moved my head, feeling the dry earth crumble underneath me. This certainly wasn’t Nottingham. Not unless the weather had significantly improved.

“Come on, son,” said the voice. A pair of warm hands took mine and hauled me to my feet. “You took a shot from Barnsey full in the face. Are you okay? You want to run it off or sit down and have some water?”

“Brian?” I mumbled.

“Brian?! Ha ha! And they say that it’s me who always gets everyone’s name wrong!”

I opened my eyes. He stood in front of me, his grey hair swept to the side, sweat sparkling on his forehead from the unforgiving sun, a broad smile stretched across his face.

“Sir Bobby?”

Sir Bobby?” he laughed. “Barnsey! You must have hit him harder than we thought, he’s just knighted me! Imagine! There’s people back home who wanted me banished from the Kingdom not so long ago, and now I’m on the honours list. Eeeh! Come on, let’s get you to Dr Street, see just how much damage you’ve done. Don? Don, man! Take over.”

“Where am I?” I asked, as Don Howe blew a whistle and gathered the players around him.

“Italy, Bob. Italy and the World Cup!”

“Gaffer?” screamed another voice, shriller, more anxious. “Where yiz gannin’? Gaffer, man? Is there food? Take us with you!”

“Oh no,” whispered Bobby. “Gazza’s seen us. I’ll have to go back. Get yourself back in the changing rooms, son. Tell the Doc I sent you and get him to make sure you’re OK. I need everyone, Bob. I need everyone fit and ready for the Germans.” He turned back to the players, and a wide-eyed Paul Gascoigne. “I’m coming back. Bob’s OK, Barnsey. But try not to wipe out my coaches, eh, son? I need all the help I can get with you lot.”

I took my cue to get back to the changing room, a nondescript concrete block on the side of the training ground. As I walked away from the players, I heard whistling from somewhere inside my head. Nessun Dorma.

“Karren?” I whispered. “Is that you?”

“Who else would it be, Bobby Manager?”

“That’s a fair point.” I sighed. “Well… how are you?”

“I’m an imagined manifestation of a memory of a powerful woman and I’m trapped in the mind of a man who was nearly killed by an out-of-control artificial cloud. How do you think I feel?”

“Cooped up, I’d say.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” she said bleakly.

“Still, the weather’s nice, isn’t it? Much nicer than Nottingham. The air’s fresher too.”

“Bobby, I’m not here to make small talk. You’ve got work to do.”

“Ah, yes. The magical mystery tour continues. So, what is it this time? After reuniting Clough and Taylor, what mission of mercy have you sent me on now?”

“You know that I can’t tell you specifically, Bobby,” she said. “But it should be obvious.”

“It’s 1990,” I announced. “We’re in Italy and you want me to help England win the World Cup.”

“Maybe,” said Karren. “Maybe it’s more localised than that. But if I told you, it would ruin everything.”

“Why? I still don’t understand this. Surely it would help if you told me?”

“Don’t you remember anything?” she snapped angrily. “You’re in a coma. You’re flat out in a hospital bed in Qatar with serious head injuries. Your systems are shutting down, which means Iam shutting down and that cannot be tolerated. Only by solving these mysteries can you keep those synapses firing. Only by putting right what once went wrong, can you stay alive.”

I sighed.

“Is there anything you can tell me that will help?”

“Of course there is. I can tell you that you are Bobby Manager, trusted aide to Bobby Robson and coach of the 1990 England World Cup squad. It’s Tuesday, 3 July 1990 and tomorrow night, England will face West Germany in the World Cup semi-final. Robson is just two wins from his greatest success. Or is he?”

“Well, he’s not, is he?”

“Isn’t he?” asked Karren.

“No. England lost to Germany on penalties in the semi-finals.”

“They did. But do they have to again?

“No… You’re right!” I exclaimed. “And you’ve just told me what I have to do! Ha, thank you, Karren! Thank you very much!”

“Who’s Karren?” asked a concerned-looking balding man in a tracksuit.

“Erm… I… er…” I mumbled. “I hit my head. Are you Dr Street?”

“Yes, I am. And you’re Bobby Manager. And if you don’t want to tell me who Karren is, you don’t have to. I’m sure she’s a very lucky lady.”

“She’s a pain in the arse,” I said grimly.

“I heard that,” said Karren.

“Sorry,” I said.

“Sorry for what?” asked Dr Street.

“Nothing. Don’t worry. Look, my head isn’t hurting so badly now. Shall I just get back out there?”

“I think,” mused Dr Street, looking me up and down, “that you’ve probably had enough time in the sun now. Why don’t you go in and get yourself a drink and have a shower. You don’t mess around with dehydration. Otherwise you might end up wandering around the grounds talking to yourself and they’d we’d all be in a right mess, wouldn’t we?”

I nodded and slipped away into the changing rooms. Terry Butcher, centre-back leviathan, was sat on one of the benches, staring blankly into space.

“Are you all right, Terry?” I asked.

He blinked.

“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I think so.”

“What happened? Why are you in here?”

Butcher grunted in displeasure.

“The doc told me to rest up,” he said. “He told me I might have internal injuries.”

“Jesus. What happened?”

“I got hit by a bus,” said Terry matter-of-factly.

“That’s terrible!” I exclaimed.

“I know,” he agreed. “It’s a total write-off. We’ll have to get a new one now.”

There was a long pause. I stared at Terry. He stared back. I made my excuses and got into the shower.

I knew where I was, I grinned as I stripped off. I remembered it as clear as day. The 1990 World Cup. No-one had given England a prayer. And why would they after the European Championship whitewash of 1988? The tabloids had even responded to England’s opening game, a grim 1-1 draw with Ireland, by demanding that the team came home immediately to save further embarrassment. And then Bobby Robson had somehow turned it around, dragging England through the group, outplaying Holland, beating Egypt, snatching a late winner against Belgium and then stumbling past Cameroon. All the way to this point. To the semi-finals.

I stood and let the water flow over me. The semi-finals. And that bloody penalty shoot-out.

England had never been in a penalty shoot-out before. Lineker scored. Beardsley scored. Platt scored. And then Pearce and Waddle missed, England’s dreams were crushed and a wave of spot-kick anxiety gathered strength and washed through the generations, knocking the national team off their feet again and again. 1996, 1998, 2004 and 2006, the nightmare kept recurring. In all the years since 1990, they had won only a single penalty shoot-out, and that was against the Spanish in a time long before tiki-taka. The summer of 1990 was a trauma from which England never recovered.

But perhaps it could be changed.

There was a commotion outside as the players trooped back in, hoots of exuberance and over-excitement. I stepped out of the shower and wrapped a towel around myself.

“Are you all right, Bob?” asked John Barnes, wandering over to examine my head.

“I’m fine, thanks Barnsey. My fault for not ducking, eh?”

Barnes laughed. “Just my luck. The first free-kick I get on target all day and it almost kills you!” He sat down and pulled a bottle of energy drink out of his bag.

“Ah,” he beamed. “After 90 minutes of sheer hell, you’re gonna get thirst.”

“Sheer hell?” said Don Howe, looking offended. “It wasn’t that bad, Barnsey. We pretty much just practised set-pieces and did a bit of jogging.”

“Okay,” acknowledged Barnes. “After 90 minutes of set-pieces and jogging, you’re gonna get thirst. This is Luc…”

“It wasn’t 90 minutes either,” pouted Don. “I kept it under an hour so you wouldn’t get heat stroke.”

“Fine,” said Barnes. “After 60 minutes of set-pieces and jogging, you’re gonna… ah, never mind.” He downed his drink.

There was a yelp from the showers and a squeal of laughter.

“Oh, you filthy bastard,” shouted Steve Hodge. “Who does that? Who does that to another human being?!”

“I got ya, Hodgy!” giggled Gascoigne, a stream of hot yellow urine spraying up from his midriff like a burst pipe. “Ha! I knew I’d get ya!”

“You got me too,” said another voice. Gascoigne’s laughter stopped abruptly, his yellow stream spluttered to a halt. Everyone fell silent. The only noise was the trickle of water from the showers. Stuart Pearce stepped out of the gloom and stared hard at Gascoigne.

“Sorry, Pearcey, man. Sorry. I didn’t mean it, it was an accident, like, it just went off on its own, man, I canna control it, it’s like a… like a… it’s like a naughty fireman’s hose, man!” 

“Wipe it off,” said Pearce tonelessly.

“Aye, I’ll do that for you, Pearcey. Hold on, man!” He ran out of the shower and grabbed his own towel, then went rushing back in to wipe the piss off his teammate’s leg.

“Pearcey?” I called. His cold, shark eyes flashed in my direction.

“What?”

“I need to borrow you. You too, Chrissie. Get your kecks back on, we’re going back out.”

There was a cough from behind me. I turned around and Bobby stood there in his tracksuit, a look of amused interest on his face.

“Are you sure, Bob, son? It’s pretty hot out there. What have you got in mind?”

“Just a bit of work on penalties, gaffer,” I said. “We won’t be long. 10 minutes.”

Chris Waddle looked at Bobby for guidance. Pearce didn’t even blink.

“Excuse me,” said Gary Lineker. “I take the penalties round here. I didn’t do too bad a job the other day against Cameroon either. I hope you’re not replacing me.”

“No-one’s replacing anyone, Gary,” said Bobby. “Are they?” he said, looking at me.

“No, of course not,” I said. “But what if Gary gets injured? What if, heaven forbid, we end up in a penalty shoot-out? Just give me 10 minutes with these two, just in case.”

“What about me?” asked Peter Beardsley.

“And me?” said David Platt.

“Don’t worry, lads,” I said. “Just these two. I don’t want to overcomplicate things.”

Bobby shrugged.

“Okay then, son. Take them out. For whatever good it will do. But no more than 10 minutes. I wanted them rested for tomorrow, not sunburned.”

“Come on, lads,” I shouted, pulling on a pair of shorts. “Let’s get cracking.”

Waddle and Pearce looked at each other and shrugged, but to their credit, they pulled their kit back on and followed me out to the goals. And what a good job it was that they did.

“What the hell was that?” I asked as I watched the ball sail off into the deep blue skies above the training ground.

Waddle sighed.

“Sorry, Bob.”

“Just keep your head down. Get yourself over the ball, then it’s physically impossible to put it over the bar. Come on, try it again.”

Waddle took a deep breath, skittered towards the spot and there was a loud thump, a whoosh and, twenty seconds later, a smash of ceramic tiles from a potter’s yard in the village at the bottom of the hill.

“I don’t…” I said. “I don’t understand. How is that even possible?”

“Sorry, Bob,” he said again.

“Don’t worry, Chrissie. We’ll sort it. We’ll get your eye in. Now, let’s have a look at you, Pearcey.”

Pearce stretched his arms out and wiggled his fingers. Then he dropped his head like a bull, charged forward and unleashed an absolute thunderbastard, drilling the ball straight down the centre of the goal, leaving a sound hanging in the air behind it like torn silk.

“Brute force,” grunted Pearce.

“Nice,” I said. “Very nice. Now try and put one in the bottom corner.”

Pearce shook his head back and forth like a wet dog, and then ran up and thundered a ball straight down the centre of the goal.

“Riiiiight,” I said carefully. “Not really in the corner, was it?”

Pearce stared at me.

“Try another one?”

He did. Straight down the centre.

“Pearcey,” I said. “Let’s try some visualisation exercises.”

Pearce glared at me. “I don’t like hippy crap.”

“Well, let’s use that!” I beamed. “You don’t like hippies?”

“Hate ‘em.”

“Perfect. Absolutely perfect. Pearcey. Shut your eyes. Come on, Pearcey, trust me. Good man. Right… Imagine there’s a hippie colony in the bottom corner of the goal.”

Pearce smiled, strode into the goalmouth, pulled his shorts to one side and did to the corner of the goal what Gascoigne had only recently done to him.

“No!” I shouted. “No, I meant…” But I thought it wise to let him finish.

When he returned I gave him a ball, explained myself more clearly and pointed at the bottom corner. This time he found the target. 10 straight penalties after that. Again and again. Straight into the bottom corner.

“What about you, Chrissie? Can you get over the ball and keep it down?” He could. Just. The first one went over the bar. The next three, bang, bang, bang, all off the bar and in. Then another, straight into the top corner. We were getting somewhere. If we’d have had enough time, we’d be able to get him to kick them along the ground, I was sure of it.

“Well done, lads,” I shouted. “Now get in for your showers and get some rest. Good work.”

We walked back to the changing room. Bobby was waiting for us, dressed casually now in shorts and a T-shirt, leaning against the doorframe.

“Any luck, son?” he asked.

“We don’t need luck,” I grinned. “We’ve got Pearce and Waddle.”

“Whatever you say, son!” he laughed. “Right, I’m off to talk to the press. Strange bunch of lads. They’ve spent the last two years telling me I’m useless, now they’re telling me I can win the World Cup. What a game, eh?”

We met again in the evening as the players relaxed and played board-games and Gascoigne tore up and down the halls in his underpants trying to lick every doorknob in the building.

“What do you think then, son?” Bobby asked me. “We’ve got the sweeper system ticking over, we’ve got Gazza settled…” There was a crash from the corridor, a thump of flesh on tiles and a high-pitched squeal of excitement. “…We’ve got Lineker fit,” continued Robson, trying to block it out. “What else can we do now but wait?”

“Penalties, gaffer,” I said, never more certain of anything in my life. “We all need to practise penalties.”

Our circle erupted into laughter.

“You’re obsessed with penalties!” laughed Bobby, wiping a tear from his eye. “We’ve not had a penalty in four years! If we didn’t get that one against the Irish, we’ll never get one at all, I tell you.”

“All the more reason to practise them,” I said. “We’re obviously due some. Come on, let’s have all the lads out in the morning, the lightest of light training, no running whatsoever, just a sudden death, last man standing penalty competition. Score to stay alive, losers are out instantly and we’ll have some kind of prize or whip-round for the last man standing. It’ll be fun, it’ll take the players’ minds off the game and we’ll get a good idea of the five best marksmen, should we need them in a shoot-out.”

The laughter stopped.

“You really think it’s going to a shoot-out, don’t you?” said Bobby quietly

“I really do,” I said firmly. “I know it sounds silly, but it’s… it’s like I’ve seen it all before.”

He nodded and smiled.

“Well, penalties would mean that the Germans couldn’t beat us in open play and I think I’ll take that! All right, Bob. You get your penalties. The shoot-out to end all shoot-outs tomorrow at 11am. Then lunch and a nap. If anyone can sleep.”

It was a huge success. And who won? Chris Waddle won, beating off a determined challenge from Gary Lineker and Stuart Pearce. As an exercise, all the players loved it, especially Gazza who kept putting on hats, fake moustaches and, in one instance, fake breasts, in an effort to have extra turns. Eventually Bobby had to distract him with a glittery ball on a length of string.  

“WEEEEE!” squealed Gazza as he rolled about on the grass, swiping at the ball with his hands.

“He’ll be like this for a while,” said Bobby, shaking his head. “But bless him, it means he’ll sleep later.”

Amazingly, he was right. And as Gascoigne snored, laid out on a table-tennis table, still clutching a sweaty paddle, Bobby, Don, Dr Street and I chatted the afternoon away over cups of tea.

“Some turnaround, this, eh?” said Bobby. “One minute we’re being told we’ve all got to go home because we’ve embarrassed the nation, the next they’re talking about parties in the street back home.”

“Yeah, one minute you’re a traitor for signing a deal with PSV Eindhoven, next minute you’re a national hero,” said Don.

“Aye,” nodded Bobby. “Some turnaround.”

“Don’t you ever get sick of this?” I asked him.

“Sick of it? No, son. This is the best life. These are the golden years we’ll all be reminiscing about one day.”  

“But they’ve treated you appallingly,” I told him. “This is a horrible job.”

“A horrible job?” laughed Bobby. “This is the greatest job in the world, son. I’m the England manager. The England manager! And out there right now, there are kids who have only just discovered football during this World Cup. Kids who haven’t been ruined by cynicism and rage and lies. Kids who’ll badger their dads now to take them to a real game, who’ll walk up those stadium steps and see the pitch open up in front of them and hear the noise and grip their fathers’ hand that bit tighter as they fall hopelessly, hopelessly in love with the game. It doesn’t matter if it’s Newcastle United, Manchester United or Southend United, all over the country they’ll be falling in love and they’ll be doing it because of my team and my players. Because of what we’re doing now. Horrible job? It’s a great job.”

There wasn’t much I could say to that.

“And besides,” said Bobby with a grin. “You get a company car.”

But the afternoon couldn’t last forever. As the shadows grew slowly across the lawn, the players began to emerge from their hibernation. As the chatter in the lounge built up, Gascoigne grunted, rolled over and crashed off the table with a yelp. It was time.

The coach, a nice new one to replace the one that Butcher had ruined, drove us to the stadium. It was a strange atmosphere. Tense, but quiet. A few of the players tried to get a game of cards going, but you could tell that their hearts weren’t in it.

When we arrived in the dressing-room, Robson took over. In that immaculate grey suit, he drifted around the players with a kind word here, a joke there. You wouldn’t believe for a moment that this was the definitive moment of his life, that back home there were tens of millions of English men, women and children, crossing fingers, arms and legs and praying that he could end their 24 years of hurt. He looked like a local politician at a fundraiser, happily doing the rounds.

And when the game began, lo and behold, the tension and the nerves had gone. If anything England looked the better team and very few people got to say that when they played against West Germany. While England had started badly and improved, the Germans had just cruised through the tournament, beating an excellent Yugoslavia, fending off the European Champions Holland and crushing Czechoslovakia. They were supposed to be the dominant force in this tournament and here they were, running themselves into the ground trying to keep up with the English.

Half-time came and went without a goal. Just keep doing what you’re doing, was the message. But then, in a moment of unavoidable ill fortune, Germany took the lead. Andreas Brehme’s free-kick took a horrible deflection off Paul Parker and the whole universe seemed to slow down as Peter Shilton backpedalled, hands clawing at the night sky in a doomed bid to keep the ball out. But no-one panicked. We kept at it. We kept in it. And we took our reward when Lineker, naturally, slid home an equaliser. But that was all that we could do. In extra-time, we suffered another blow as Gascoigne was booked, incurring a suspension that would keep him out of the final.

Silently, I cursed myself for forgetting to talk to our tubby talisman before the game, to try to warn him of what might happen. But then again, would he have even heard my words? I resolved to have a quiet word with him afterwards about reckless tackles in FA Cup Finals, just to see if I could make it up to him.

And then the final whistle blew. Penalties. For the first time in England’s history. Penalties.

I watched as Bobby went around the players. Pats on the back. Ruffles of the hair. Little words, short questions. Trying to assess their state of mind. Whose nerves could take the strain? But I knew their state of mind. And I knew who would score and who would miss.

Lineker. Beardsley. Platt. And Pearce. And Waddle. After all the practice. After all the work. On this one night in Turin, history would change.

“Listen up, lads” said Bobby, assembling his five brave men in front of him. “You know you can do this. Bob here had you practising yesterday. You were all amazing yesterday. Don’t overthink it. Just step up and do what you do; put that ball away. It’s what you do. It what’s you’ve always done. That’s why you’re here.”

They nodded, jawbones stiff, faces set against what was to come. Like paratroopers over a drop zone.

“We can do this, lads. Come on!” shouted Lineker.

The referee blew his whistle and signalled for the players to assemble on the halfway line.

I saw Gary Lineker pick up the ball and wink confidently at his teammates. Has there ever been an England striker who was cooler under fire? He looked like a young monarch, striding about in the palace gardens, not a care in the world. He walked calmly to the spot and laid the ball down. Then he turned and walked back 10 paces. Around me, it felt as though the whole stadium was breathing in at once and holding it, the silence was oppressive, like a heavy blanket. And then that silence was broken suddenly by the gut-wrenching sound of the ball smashing the left hand post and bouncing away. The German players hugged each other in delight. I stood and stared in horror. That wasn’t supposed to happen. That didn’t happen before. Lineker was supposed to score.

Next to me, I heard a profoundly sad sigh escape from Bobby’s mouth.

Brehme stepped up. Brehme scored. No problems. Rifled into the bottom corner. Shilton stood motionless. He might as well have tried to catch a bullet.

Peter Beardsley walked forwards looking edgy, like a man who’s heard the letterbox rattle and knows exactly what colour ink they’ve used on the bills. He walked slowly to the spot. The English supporters sang his name, desperate to lift his spirits. He acknowledged them. He lifted an arm to salute them. And then he lashed the ball high over the bar.

Bobby sagged in his grey suit, like a marionette with severed strings.

Lothar Matthäus scored. Of course he did. Walloped home. Dispatched with an ease that seemed to mock us, mock us to our faces. Look how easy it is, the shot seemed to say. It’s simple. What’s wrong with you? Seriously? Why do you find this so hard? 

David Platt looked pale. When the ball was thrown to him, he dropped it through trembling fingers.

“What is going on?” I hissed. “This wasn’t supposed to happen!”

Platt walked to the spot like a man on his way to the gallows.

“There are some things that can’t be changed, Bobby,” said Karren’s voice softly. “England’s chances of ever beating Germany on penalties are at the top of that list.”

Platt’s weak shot was caught easily by Illgner. The German players began to dance.

Karl-Heinz Riedle strode up to the goal, fist-pumping the German supporters all the way.

“But I did so much work!” I cried. “I had Pearcey and Waddle race-tuned. They would have scored!” 

“They probably would, yes,” said Karren. “But you can’t fight fate, Bobby. Some things are too powerful.”

“Then what was the point, Karren? What was the point of all of this?”

“You had to try,” she whispered.

I turned to Bobby. He stared at Riedle without a glimmer of emotion, but when the ball hit the back of the net he flinched as if he’d heard the blast of a shotgun.

“Bobby,” I cried out. But he didn’t seem to hear me. No-one could hear me. And around me, the stands filled with disconsolate England supporters and jubilant Germans began to melt away. I slipped to the ground and I sank into the turf, dragged down through the topsoil as the sound of Turin distorted and warped out of recognition.

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.