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. 

“Arthur Hayes, you bleedin’ idiot!” shouted a familiar cockney accent. “Don’t you kick those bloody footballs at my assistant manager!”

Pain. Oh, so much pain. A kind of skeletal ache from the very core of my being. And sickness too. This was my third leap and it wasn’t getting any easier. I lay there, face down in the dust and kept my eyes tightly shut. I was getting sick of this. I didn’t want to open my eyes. I didn’t want to face my next challenge. I didn’t want to have Karren Brady’s dispossessed voice in my head. I just wanted to go back to Qatar, back to my team and I wanted to be a normal, non-time-travelling football manager again. 

“Are you all right, Bobby?” said the voice.

“Who are you this time?” I shouted, still resolutely pressing my face into the ground.

There was laughter. 

“I think I might have hit him harder than I thought!” said a smooth Scottish voice. 

“Settle down, lads,” said the first voice and a pair of rough hands rolled me over onto my back. I opened my eyes and looked up to see a sandy-haired man in army fatigues with a concerned look on his face.

“My name,” he said levelly, “is…”

“Michael Caine?” I said. 

He looked baffled and there was more laughter. 

“No, Bobby, you daft sod. My name is John Colby!” He pulled me up to my feet and patted me on the back. Slowly, carefully, I turned my head around and tried to get my bearings. A group of young men in tattered army uniforms stared at me as I stood there on a wide, dusty pitch which, I noted with interest, was surrounded by barbed wire and machine-gun nests. 

“Are you okay, Bobby?” asked a shortish black soldier with a heavy accent. “Your head. It was hit hard, no?” 

I stared at him.

“Pelé?”

He laughed. 

“Who is this Pelé? I am Luis Fernández, your friend!” 

Colby put his arm around my shoulder and led me away. 

“That was a bloody heavy hit you took, Bobby,” he said. “I’m not surprised it’s knocked you silly. But don’t worry, I think we’d just about picked our squad anyway. Why don’t you go over there and have a shower and see if the water shakes you out of this, eh?” 

I looked behind him. Bobby Moore and Mike Summerbee were talking to each other behind their hands. Summerbee pointed his finger at his head and twirled it around. 

“Okay, Colby,” I said. “That’s probably a good idea.”

“Good man!” he said. “We’ll talk later.”

A pile of muscle with thick, black hair and a face like pounded steak ran over to Colby as he turned away from me.

“How about now, coach?” he grunted in an American accent.

“Sod off, Hatch,” said Colby. 

I trudged off the pitch and headed to the hut that Colby had pointed out, trying to stretch the pain out of all of my limbs as I went.

“Go on then, Karren,” I hissed. “Why am I in Escape to Victory?”

Victoire, Bobby! Victoire!” Her voice rang out inside his head. “How fortunate that you’ve seen the film; we’d be in a lot of trouble if you hadn’t. You’re assistant manager to West Ham, England and British Armed Forces star Captain John Colby. He’s been challenged to put together a team of POWs to take on the cream of the Wehrmacht and you’re here to help him. Of course, there is the small matter of plot to escape that’s bubbling away in the background.”

“I have seen the film, Karren.”

“Just checking.”

“Couldn’t you just pick something normal? Newcastle under Keegan? QPR with Stan Bowles? The 1970 World Cup?”

“The idea, Bobby,” growled Karren, “is not to be normal. It is to challenge you. Need I remind you that you’re currently laid out in a hospital bed in Qatar, deep in a coma, your brain slowly atrophying as your grip on this life weakens?”

“No, you –”

“Need I remind you that your only hope of survival is for me to fire up those malfunctioning synapses with a series of challenges, each more devious than the last?”

“No,” I said sadly.

“Right then. Stop moaning.”

I trotted up the steps to the shower block and stepped into the moist, dank changing room, stripping off my clothes quickly.

“So what’s the challenge, then? Protect Pelé’s ribs from brutal assault? Break more people out? Liberate Paris?”

“Don’t be silly,” said Karren as I stepped under the rushing, and surprisingly warm, water. “You simply have to put right what once went wrong.”

“But nothing went wrong, Karren,” I said, letting the water cascade over my head, feeling the aches and pains of my leap ebbing away. “Colby’s team came back from 4-0 down, they restored their dignity and then they all escaped anyway. What went wrong?”

“What was the final score, Bobby?”

“It was a draw, 4-4, I think.” 

And the only noise was the sound of the water splattering on the floor. 

“Karren?” I said. “KARREN?”

The door to the hut creaked open. 

“Have I interrupted something, Bobby?” laughed Colby from the changing room.

“What?” I called back. 

“Who’s Karren? You got a bird in there?” 

I blushed under the water. “No,” I shouted quickly.

“It’s okay, Bobby, we are both men of the world. I’ll give you a couple of minutes to… ha ha… finish off. Then I need to see you in the hut. The kit’s turned up, I think you’ll be impressed.”

“Okay!” I called back. The door creaked shut. 

Brilliant, I thought to myself. I’ve only been here for 10 minutes and already Michael Caine thinks I’m a wanker. 

He didn’t, of course. He was everything you could want in a manager. Warm, considerate and unafraid to stand up for what he believed in. He’d finalised the squad while I was showering and we called all of the players into our new, specially fitted, fully stocked hut while we pulled all of the kit out of the bag and cooed over the quality. And then Hatch turned up.

“Hi, guys!” he said cheerfully.

“What do you think you’re doing, Hatch?” said Colby. “You’re not on the team.”

“Sure I am,” he grinned. “You forgot to put in for a trainer. Maybe I can’t play your football, but in my football, you gotta know everything there is to know about injuries. So I’ll be your trainer.”

“I don’t want a trainer,” said Colby. “I’ve got Bobby.”

Hatch stared at me in disgust. “Him?” he said. “He’s no good.”

“No good?” I barked. “I won the bloody Champions League with Liverpool!”

“What’s a Champions League?” asked Colby.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “Let’s just get rid of him. We can’t have people wandering in off the street willy-nilly. We’ve got a game to win. And I’ve got a feeling that it’s very important for us to win it.”

“Come on!” shouted Hatch. “You and your team wrecked my escape! I was ready to go. The only way out of here now is by being on your team.”

“No,” said Colby sternly. “You’ll get yourself shot. I won’t be responsible for your death.”

“That’s my choice, isn’t it?” asked Hatch.

Colby look thoughtful. 

“Yeah, fair point,” he nodded. “All right, you’re on the team.”

“What?!” I shrieked. “But that’s no reason! He’s… you can’t just… Jesus Christ, Colby!”

“Hey Roomie!” grinned Hatch, and he barged past me on his way to choose a bunk. 

Oh, he was a nightmare. Right from the start, he was an unmitigated nightmare. He knew absolutely nothing about football. His idea of taking a training session was to shout, “Come on guys, pick ‘em up, put ‘em down,” while everyone ran around in circles. And he was so annoying. 

“I want you all to know,” he shouted as we got changed one day, “that if you’re having any trouble with appendicitis, heart attacks, that’s okay. That’s no problem. I can handle that. But listen. I don’t want any blisters. No blisters allowed. So if there’s anything wrong with any of you guys, tell me now, not later? Okay? Minor inconvenience, say like anal bleeding, tuberculosis, growing tum–“

“For Christ’s sake, Hatch,” I shouted. “Will you please just shut up?”

“I’m just trying to get some team spirit going here, right, guys?” he beamed.

No-one said a word. Everyone kept their head down. 

“You’re not getting team spirit going, you anvil-headed twat!” I roared. “You’re just listing ailments, we’re trying to get ready to play football here!” 

And then it got worse. The ridiculous man decided to wander in front of the goalposts while we practising and then instinctively slapped away a shot that came towards him.

“That’s not bad, Hatch,” said Colby admiringly. 

“What’s not bad?” asked Hatch, looking like a dog trying to do long multiplication. 

“Using your hands,” grinned Colby. “Come on, let’s see what you’re like.” He handed a ball to Pelé. “Come on, Luis, fire a few at him.”

I don’t know what got into Pelé. For over a week, I’d seen him pile shots into the net from all angles and all ranges, but suddenly he couldn’t do anything but drill the ball straight down Hatch’s throat.

“Come on, guys!” roared Hatch. “You can do better than that.” And they could. It was the first time I’d ever agreed with him. Again and again, they put shots too close to his body. Again and again, he slapped them away like a terrified picnicker, desperately swatting away wasps.

“You’re not bad,” Colby told him. “Not bad at all.”

“Not bad?” I gasped. “He’s terrible! He’s rooted to the ground, he can’t catch, he won’t put his body behind the ball and his technique is the worst I’ve ever seen!”

Colby put his arm around my shoulder and led me away. 

“I don’t know what’s wrong with you, Bobby,” he said evenly. “But I’d prefer it if you were a bit more positive. I didn’t put you on the coaching team to tell my players they can’t play. If it doesn’t stop, I’ll have to reconsider the make-up of my coaching team. Do we understand each other?”

“Yes,” I mumbled, feeling awful. 

“Good,” smiled Colby. “There’s nothing wrong with having a spare goalkeeper. You never know what might happen to Tony Lewis.”

“Speaking of which,” I said, “is it just me or does he look more like a winger than a goalkeeper?”

“Leave it out, Bobby.”

“Right,” I said. “Sorry, Colby.”

Two days later, Hatch was gone. As part of a half-witted and ill-planned escape attempt that, frankly, none of us were entirely enthusiastic about, he slipped out of the shower block and away to enlist the help of the French resistance.

“All the best, Hatch,” whispered Bobby Moore as our trainer clambered out of a hole in the roof. “I hope he makes it.”

“I fucking don’t,” I mumbled under my breath. 

Three days later, I was putting the cones out for training when I heard her voice.

“You’re letting this slip, Mr Manager.” Karren whispered. I jumped and dropped all of my cones. 

“For God’s sake, Karren.” I scowled. “Can’t you warn me when you’re going to do that?”

“What do you want? A doorbell?”

“Yes!”

“Ding-dong,” she said tonelessly.

I sighed. “What do you want? And what do you mean I’m letting this slip?”

“You’re not doing anything to change the narrative. You’re just following the plot. You’ll never get home if you just follow the plot. I’ve been watching you. You’re just quietly coaching the team.”

“Of course I am,” I growled as I picked up the cones. “I’m a coach.”

“You’re a patient in the intensive care wing of a hospital in Qatar,” Karren said softly. “If you don’t put right what once went wrong, you will die there. And I will die there with you.”

“Well,” I said pointedly. “You obviously haven’t been watching me that closely because I have been working on a corner routine which is going to pay huge dividends when we get to Paris. Colby likes it, we’re going to use it and then we’re going to win.”

Karren sighed.

“The Allies didn’t fail to win because their corners weren’t good enough. Scoring goals was not one of their problems. Think hard. Why did they concede so many goals?”

“The goalkeeper,” I said, shaking my head in dismay. “It was all Hatch’s fault. He was wretched. That penalty save at the end covered an absolutely abysmal performance between the sticks. Even with the dodgy refereeing, a half-decent keeper would have had that game won comfortably. So is that the key, Karren? Remove Hatch, win the game and then I can go home?”

Silence.

“Karren?”  

“You still pining for Karren?” asked Colby, striding up behind me. 

“Colby!” I said, startled.

“Don’t worry, Bobby. I won’t say a word. Most of the boys here have got someone back home waiting for them. You’re not the first to start calling out a name. I do it myself.”

“You do?” I asked.

“Of course I do,” he grinned. “Every now and then if you listen very carefully, you’ll hear me whisper her name at night. ‘West Ham!’ I’ll say softly. ‘West Ham!’”

Oh, Colby. He did make me laugh. 

Everything was easier with Hatch out of the picture. We could focus on drilling the players without having to put up with his inane questions about where to stand for corners. We could eat our food in peace without him trying to banter us all up like a one-man Freshers’ Week. The next few days flew by. Not that it was all straightforward. Some of the players had their own ideas about how we should play the game. 

“Let the ball do the running for you,” Colby was saying as he marked out lines on a blackboard. “Don’t try to run with it. You’re in no condition to run for 90 minutes. If you can’t cross, don’t run it through. Try and get a corner. A set piece works –” 

Pelé stood up and took the chalk out of his hand.

“Colby,” he said. “After giving me the ball here, I do this…” He began to scrawl a long winding line across the blackboard. “I do this… this… this… this, goal. Easy.” And he sat back down again to much laughter.

“Luis,” I said as I got to my feet. “If I catch you doing that against the Germans, I’ll sub you off and kick your arse down the tunnel. This a team game, there isn’t one ball for you and one for everyone else. You follow instructions. Colby’s telling you this for a reason, because you’re a prisoner of war, malnourished and out of shape. You’re not a bloody racehorse!”

Everyone stared at me. 

“Steady on, Bobby,” said Colby. 

“No, I won’t steady on!” I shouted. “We’re here to win a football match, not fanny around. I’ve had enough Hatch’s bollocks, of futile escape plans and self-indulgent prima donnas. I want to win this game and I want to go home.”

“Okay, Bob,” said Colby, patting me on the back. “Okay. Why don’t we–”

There was a banging on the window. 

“Hatch is back!” shouted a voice. We all ran to the window. A truck with a cage on the back was cruising into camp and there, in the cage, was Hatch, proud and defiant, sucking up the applause of the other inmates. The tit. He made some strange gesture as they led him away and I saw all the intelligence boys, the upper-crust idiots playing games with people’s lives, lapping it up. Obviously he’d achieved his mission and found out what the French resistance had lined up for us at the other end. The only problem was that he couldn’t tell anybody because the Germans whisked him straight off to solitary confinement. 

“I’m in a bit of a situation here,” Colby told me the next morning as we carried the kit out for training. “The brass want me to get Hatch out of solitary. They need to know what was said in Paris, they need to find out if this escape is on or not. And there’s only one way we can get him out.”

“You’ll never convince the Germans to let him come to Paris as our trainer now,” I told him, knowing what was coming next, but feeling a certain obligation to let it play out. 

“Not as our trainer, no.” Colby said. “As our goalkeeper.”

I stopped walking and stared at him.

“I’m going to stop you there, Colby. That is the worst idea that you have ever had. It is the worst idea that anyone has ever had. Bugger the escape. We’ve got far more chance of winning with Tony Lewis in goal.”

“Not if I break his arm,” said Colby quietly.

I sighed. 

“Colby, that is absolutely barbaric. Listen to yourself. What’s got into you? You want to break Tony’s arm just that we can get Hatch to play in goal, just so that we can launch an escape attempt that no-one, least of all you, really wants to go through with?”

“I don’t want to,” said Colby. “But I think I…”

“You’re not thinking at all. Don’t you want to win, Colby? You’re a sportsman, you’ve played for England. Surely you just want to go to Paris and win? To hell with escape plans, they’ll never work anyway. Let’s just do something here, for us, for the boys, for football. Let’s go and beat the Germans and send them a message that way.”

Colby looked troubled. 

“I’ll sleep on it, Bobby. But I’ve got to consider everything.” 

He walked away, suddenly looking ever so lonely. 

“Ding-dong,” said Karren, inside my head.

“What do you want?” I asked impolitely. 

“That didn’t work,” she said. “You didn’t convince him. He’s going to break Tony Lewis’s arm, you know he is. You’re going to have to do better. You need to take Hatch out of the equation. Otherwise you’ll lose the game. And you’ll die.”

“What else can I do? I’ve tried reasoning with him, I tried logic. He won’t listen. He’ll put Hatch in the team as goalkeeper and the useless bastard will flap at everything, roll over the ball and let in four before the break.”

“Take him out of the equation,” she said again. 

“How?” I asked. 

“Think about it, Bobby,” she groaned. 

“Herr Manager!” said a cheerful German voice behind me. It was Major Karl von Steiner, orchestrator of this madness. “I have come to see you and your coaching. I have heard much about your corner routines. Ha! I have come to spy!”

“Hello, Major,” I said politely. “I don’t think you’ll learn much from this session, just light running and a few drills today.” 

“What is the matter, Herr Manager? You look so sad. You have everything you need, yes? The food and the boots and the balls?”

“Ah, I’m okay,” I said. “It’s just… complications.”

“Herr Manager,” said Von Steiner kindly. “I am here to help you. This football match is important.”

“Pah!” I said. “To the Nazi propaganda machine, perhaps!”

“No,” he said quietly, staring into the distance. “It is important for all us, Herr Manager. This war will end one day. We will start to rebuild, to live together in peace. You are a football man. I am a football man. We know what this sport it is, what it can do. Why, I believe that one game of football can equal the work of 10 diplomats! When you play in Paris, when my superiors see your efforts and your spirit, I think they will realise that we are not so different. That is why your friend Hatch and his escape was so… regrettable.”

“He’s not my friend,” I said quickly. 

“I see,” said Von Steiner. “Then may I speak freely?”

“Of course,” I said.

“Hatch was a fool. He could have ruined everything. His escape reminded me of the dangers of this game. This is as much a trust exercise as it is a physical exercise. If the game goes well and there is no trouble, there may be more games. More teams. More competitions. Across occupied Europe, we may take the first step towards integration for the future through football. But if anything goes wrong… if there is an escape attempt…”

“All the more reason for you to keep Hatch in solitary confinement,” I said firmly. “Make sure he stays there, no matter what, and that we play in Paris without him. You can’t be too careful, eh?

“No,” said Von Steiner with an odd look on his face. “You can’t. Do you think if I let Hatch out that he would try to escape?”

“I think you can be certain that he would,” I said. “Hatch is relentless, he won’t give up. I am sure that if you were to let him out of solitary, say in the unlikely event that our goalkeeper was injured, that he would absolutely definitely try to escape.”

Von Steiner smiled. 

“I think we understand each other, Herr Manager.” He clipped his heels together, saluted and strode away. 

Later that night, there was a short, but unmistakable burst of machine gun fire. It turned out that Von Steiner and I didn’t quite understand each other as well as we thought. 

“They did what?!” roared Colby the next morning.

“They’ve killed Hatch, Colby,” said Bobby Moore solemnly. “They executed him last night. It’s all over the camp. Apparently Jerry got wind that he was planning another escape attempt.”

“He was in bloody solitary confinement!” shouted Colby. “He didn’t have anything on him. How the hell could he have been planning anything? What was he going to do, chew his way out?!”

“I don’t know,” shrugged Moore. “I just know that the Germans were convinced that he was going to make another escape attempt. An informant, apparently.”

“Well done, Mr Manager,” chuckled Karren inside my head. “That’s certainly taken him out of the equation! I had no idea you could be so decisive.” 

I pulled the covers over my head. I only meant for Von Steiner to keep him in solitary until we’d left. 

Colby slumped down in his chair. 

“What kind of bastard would do that? What a mess.”

The intelligence boys were in the hut half an hour later and they were just as devastated. Shurlock, a particularly plummy charlatan with too much time on his hands, just stood and shook his head. 

“This is terrible news,” he sighed. “How will we ever find out what the French resistance said?”

“I suppose we’ll never know,” said Colby. “But I’ll tell you this for nothing. There’s no way that I’m going to risk the lives of my players if we don’t know what’s out there waiting for us.”

“Quite, quite,” nodded Shurlock. “It would be senseless to continue now. Don’t concern yourself with any sort of escape attempt. Just play your football match, Colby. Don’t worry about anything else. It’s a terrible shame. A real shame. But it’s not a complete loss.”

“Really?” said Colby.

“Oh no, there’s a very exciting project we can devote all of our resources to now. Biggins in Hut 32 is convinced that he can manufacture fold-up gliding wings for all the boys to wear on their arms. Just pop up to the top of the hut, jump in the air and, whoosh! It’s off over the fence and onwards to Blighty!”

“Oh,” said Colby. 

“Exciting times, eh?” grinned Shurlock. 

“That’s not how I’d describe them, no,” he said, and walked away. He didn’t cheer up for days. He just wandered the camp with his hands in his pockets. I had to gee up the lads and put some smiles on some faces in his absence, but thankfully he managed to get himself together in time for the journey to Paris. 

“Bobby,” he said, as the train rumbled through the French countryside. “I just want to thank you for all of your help this week. I’m sorry I haven’t been much use. Just… I’ve never…”

“It’s okay,” I said.

“I’ve just seen too many people die.”

“It’s okay, Colby. It was no problem.” 

He smiled wryly and shook his head.

“You’re a good man, Bobby. I couldn’t have done this without you. Now let’s just get out there and win this bloody game, eh?” Colby smiled. “Let’s win it for Hatch.”

“Yeah!” I said. “And, also, you know, we can win it for us too.”

By the time we got to the stadium, Colby was a man transformed. He was focused, he was inspirational. He was ready. 

“Don’t let them intimidate you,” he told us. “We know the referee’s going to favour them, we know that they’re going to put in some nasty challenges. Let’s take that on the chin and work through it. It’ll make it all the more satisfying when we win!”

And he was right, it was brutal out there. Challenges came flying in everywhere. They paid particular attention to poor Pele who took a battering. But every time they broke through our lines, they found Tony Lewis in indomitable form. He was out off his line to claim crosses. He was down fast to tricky shots fired in from close range. He even saved a penalty in the first half, an incredible stop from Werner Roth.

“We can do this,” said Colby at half-time. “We’re sucking up everything they’ve got, they’re getting tired and frustrated. All we need is one chance. Just one chance!” 

“Pel… Luis Fernández?” I said. 

“Yes, Bobby?”

“Drop a little deeper,” I said. “Instead of chasing up all the time for the header, lurk outside the box and, lads, cut the ball back instead of hanging it over the goalkeeper.”

Colby smiled.

“That’s good thinking, Bobby. Now come on lads, let’s show them what we think of militarised totalitarianism!” Everyone looked blank. “And let’s do it for Hatch!” Everyone cheered. 

“Yeah,” I mumbled. “For Hatch.”

We were inspired in the second half, piling on the pressure, really giving them the runaround. And then came the moment I shall see in my head until my dying days. A lovely cross, lofted just behind the penalty spot, and Pelé, upside down in slow motion, bicycle-kicking the ball home. Over and over again. In dappled sunlight. And that was it, the game was won.

The French crowd leapt to their feet, cheering and applauding. And so, I’m very pleased to say, did the Germans. I looked up into the main stand and saw Von Steiner taking handshakes from his superiors, pats on the back, smiles all round. He saw me looking at him and he gave me a thumbs up, a broad grin on his face.

“I told you, Herr Manager!” he called. “The power of football!”

We all piled into the dressing-room, stripped off and jumped in the bath. 

“You were outstanding, Tony!” I shouted. 

“You were ALL outstanding!” bellowed Colby. “I’ve never been so proud of a team in my life. And you, Luis, if you ever want a game down at Upton Park, I’ll definitely put in a word for you!” 

Luis laughed, we all laughed. And then we started to sing, splashing water over each other and being bloody blokes. Until we slowly became aware of something. A steady rhythmic banging from beneath our bottoms. The singing stopped. The tiles at the bottom of the bath seemed to vibrate and a stream of bubbles appeared.

“Hey, Colby?” I said, as the bubbles rose to the surface and began to pop. 

“Yes, Bobby?”

“You remember how Hatch went off to enlist the help of the French resistance?”

“Yes.”

“Well… did anyone get back to the French Resistance and tell them that Hatch was dead and that the escape plan was cancelled?”

Colby looked thoughtful for a moment. 

“No, Bobby. I don’t believe that they did.”

There was a horrible groaning noise from beneath the water.

“Ah,” I said. “Oh dear.”

With an almighty crash, the bottom of the bath gave way and we fell, players, tiles, water and all, wiping out two French lads on a ladder beneath us. Amid the screaming, the crashing of falling brickwork and the clouds of dust, we heard the clattering of boots and the familiar shrill wail of a siren. Around the edge of the hole above us, the faces of some very surprised German soldiers and their machine guns appeared.

“It’s not what it looks like.” said Colby.

I tried to speak. I tried to get my words, any words, out of my mouth. But all that escaped my lips was a drawn out guttural moan. The Germans, my teammates, Colby, the two poor French lads at the bottom of our pile, they all began to fade away and I sank through the soil, through the earth, through the very boundaries of this ethereal plane. 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.