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.

Thump. You always land with a thump. I don’t know why, I don’t really understand the process, but when you’re ripped through space and time and deposited somewhere new, it’s definitely with a thump, like you’ve been unceremoniously dropped from the jaws of a mechanical digger. And then there’s the pain. 

Oh God, the pain. Drunks might learn how to drink, sailors may become accustomed to the sea, but I will never get used to leaping. A searing internal pain, as if your spine has been ripped out and hurled through a plate glass window, mixed with swirling nausea and a headache that could…

“I’m not even sorry!” roared a furious Irish voice. 

“What?” I whimpered, face down on wet grass. I rolled over, opened my eyes and was horrified to see a dark-haired, bearded man with eyes like the fires of hell itself leaning over me, his finger jabbing just inches from my face. First impressions can often be deceiving, but he really seemed upset about something. 

“Take that, you cunt!” he shouted. “I remember what you did! I remember how you acted! I’ve waited a long time for this!”

“What did I do?” I shrieked, looking around. A couple of dozen footballers, clad in black and red, simply stared at their shoes. 

“You read my newspaper, you bastard. I can always tell, you know. I can always tell. The fold is all out of kilter, you shitbag!” 

Well, I did the only thing a man can do when he’s at the mercy of a maniac. I let my eyes roll back in my head and went as limp as a warm salad.

“Don’t pretend you’re unconscious!” he bellowed. “Don’t be a liar as well as a thief!” He shook me like a crumpled duvet. I gave up playing dead. 

“This isn’t how you deal with a head injury!” I wailed, eyes still tightly closed against his rain of spittle.  

“Boss!” shouted one of the players. “Come on, boss, leave him alone!”

He stopped shaking me and dropped me back on the turf. Then he turned around to the source of the sound.

“Nyron fucking Nosworthy,” he sneered. “I never knew you had the balls. As for the rest of you, you sicken me. I’m assaulting your assistant manager right in front of you and all you can do is stand there quietly and watch. What kind of a team do I have here? What kind of men are you? No wonder everyone keeps beating us.”

And with that, he stood up and stormed off the training pitch, delivering a full payload of inventively assembled swearwords as he went. 

Some of the players helped me to my feet. One of them examined my forehead. 

“Are you all right, Bobby?” asked Nyron kindly. “That was a pretty heavy hit you took.”

“Where am I?” I wibbled. 

“Aye, let’s get you back in the dressing- room, Bobby,” said a large, middle-aged Scotsman. “You’ve had a bang on the head. We’ll get you a cup of tea, that’ll set you right. Come on lads, back to work. Let’s have two laps before I’m back and we’ll split up into groups.”

“Who are you?” I asked as he helped me off the pitch, wrapping my arm around his thick shoulders. 

He chuckled. 

“He hit you pretty hard, didn’t he? I’m Ricky Sbragia, I’m the coach. You’re Bobby Manager. And that force of nature who just shook you silly, that was Roy Keane.”

“Oh boy,” I said.

“Don’t worry,” said Ricky. “It’s not like you’re the first person he’s lost his rag with this year. You remember how he threatened to break all of Pascal Chimbonda’s fingers after the 5-0 at Stamford Bridge? And poor Andy Reid after we lost at home to Portsmouth? How he said he’d feed him to the pigs, but we didn’t have enough pigs to even make a dent in his big, fat arse? Aye, he’s having a tough time of it, is the boss.” 

“And this is how he motivates people to do better?”

“Yep,” smiled Ricky. “Welcome to Sunderland. I think you’ll find…”

There were panicked shouts from behind us. Ricky spun around.

“What’s going on?” I asked. 

“Aw, crap. El-Hadji Diouf’s gone broken arrow again. It’s hard to tell from here, but it looks like he’s sitting on Michael Chopra and he’s trying to spit in his mouth. God’s teeth, I really thought we’d sorted this out. Bobby, are you all right to get to the dressing-room on your own? Just have a shower and a bit of a rest, aye? I’m sure the boss will be along to talk it out with you soon. He never stays mad for long. Mind you, he never stays happy for long either. What a life, eh? DIOUF! STOP GOBBING IN CHOPS’ MOUTH, MAN!” 

Ricky thundered off to break up the scuffle and I was left to stagger into the dressing-room alone. Just once, it would be nice if I didn’t arrive in a new point in space and time with a traumatic head injury. Maybe one day I could just wake up in a nice, soft bed, surrounded by cushions with a nice cup of tea on the bedside table. Would that be too much to ask? I stripped off my muddy training kit and stepped into the shower, letting the hot water do its work.

“Ah, Bobby, we meet again,” said a firm female voice in my head.

“Karren Brady, I presume?” I said, as I began to wash the mud out of my hair. 

“But, of course!” 

“So, come on then, give me the spiel.”

“Spiel, Bobby? Spiel? I’m not pitching for a movie, you know. This is serious stuff. A series of intellectual challenges, each more difficult than the last, designed and engineered to test every facet of your ability as a manager. Bobby, everything we do together here is interwoven, dozens of stories combining to one end only: to bring you out of this coma. This is the only way, Bobby. All else is darkness.”

“But Sunderland? Seriously?”

“Sunderland indeed. November 2008. The last days of Roy Keane’s reign at the Stadium of Light. After dragging this football club straight back into the Premier League and just about holding them there in their first season back, it’s all started to fall apart. A summer spending spree has made little difference to results. Morale in the dressing-room is rock bottom. The players are terrified of their manager but, as I gather you’ve just discovered, they have good reason. A win over Blackburn Rovers at the weekend has provided some respite, but Keane does not have long.”

“So I have to save Keane’s job?” I said, reaching out to turn off the water.

“Perhaps not even that,” said Karren enigmatically. 

“You never make it easy, do you?”

“Why would I make it easy?” she hissed. “The whole point is to make you work. You’re flat out in a hospital bed in Qatar, Bobby. Your muscles are atrophying, your brain is wasting away. But if you die, I die. And I do not wish to die today. So, yes, Bobby, I do make it hard. I do strive to find ever more testing circumstances for you. But with good reason.”

“I know, Karren. And I do appreciate it, but just sometimes, I don’t know, maybe sometimes you could make it seem like you’re having less fun?”

“Who’s Karren?” came a voice from outside the shower, low and even, as calm as a circling shark.

I wrapped a towel around myself hurriedly and stepped out into the dressing-room. Roy was sat on one of the benches, straight-backed and alert, staring at me in a way that made me feel like a main course.

“You hear them too, do you Bobby?”

“Hear what, sorry?” I asked uncertainly.

“The voices in the shower,” he said, looking around nervously.  “They come to me as well.”

I wasn’t sure what to say. 

“Sometimes they tell me to do things, Bobby. The voices. They tell me to do things that I don’t want to do.” 

I offered a trembling smile.

“Okay. Well…erm…”

“Bobby?” 

“Yes?” I squeaked.

“I’m fucking with you.”

“Okay!” I blurted. 

“Come on, man? Where’s your sense of humour?” He stood up, strode over and gave me a slap on the shoulder. “I’m sorry about earlier, Bobby. I’ve been having a bit of a time of it and I lost my temper. Come on, get your clothes on and we’ll have a cup of tea.”

He walked out and left me alone in the dressing-room, trembling in my towel. I had never needed a poo more. 

Roy could not have been more charming when I arrived in his office, ten minutes later. He welcomed me in to his domain warmly, offered me a seat in front of his desk and then buzzed his secretary for refreshments.

“Time to talk West Ham, Bobby,” he said. “The players enjoyed the Blackburn win, and right enough too. They did well. But we couldn’t ask for a better opportunity to get back-to-back wins than this. They’re seven games without a win and it’s a long journey for them. Their heads will be low and they’ll be tired and out of sorts. It’s three points waiting to happen, so I don’t want any mistakes here. Win this and I think we can start to turn this season around.”

The door opened and his secretary slipped in with a tray of tea. 

“I’ll be Mam, shall I?” smiled Roy as he poured from the pot. “I’m so sorry, Bobby. I can’t remember if you take sugar or not.”

“I don’t, thanks,” I said. 

“Neither do I,” he twinkled. “I think we’re both sweet enough already, eh? Ha!”

“Roy,” I said. “What happened this morning?”

“We’ve spoken about this morning,” he said, still smiling. “Don’t give it another moment’s thought. This is a Premier League football club. If we stopped to analyse every bit of friction, we’d never get anything done. We both want to win, that’s a good thing, a positive thing. We’ll leave it at that.”

I nodded and took a long sip of tea. 

“Mmmm,” I said approvingly. “That is a lovely cup of tea,”

A shadow seemed to pass across the room. 

“Is it?” he said coldly. 

“Well…yes, I think so,” I said quietly. 

“Do you want to know what I think?” he said, not even pausing for an answer. “I think to myself, sure, tea’s been good in the past, tea’s been great, tea’s been the perfect antidote to anything from a bad day in the office to a slight case of the snuffles, but you know what? Tea’s got lazy. Tea’s stood still. Tea’s spent too much time patting itself on the back and showing off its medals. And it hasn’t even noticed that coffee is getting better all the time.”

“Okay…”

“No, Bobby, it’s not okay. This is exactly the kind of thing I was talking about. We’ve all got complacent here. We’re all, la lala, we got promoted. We’re all, la lala, we stayed up. We’re so busy celebrating the last thing that happened that we never think about the next step. What the fuck have we got to celebrate, eh? We’re a bog standard Premier League club. The biggest team we beat last season was Aston Villa. The biggest team we’ve beaten this season is Newcastle, and that doesn’t count because Joe Kinnear is their manager.”

“But Roy…”

“No, don’t you ‘But Roy’ me, Bobby. Don’t you dare,” he said, jabbing his finger again. “We win against West Ham, or so help me God, I will go to town on this squad with a pick-axe.”

“I just said that it was a nice cup of tea, Roy.”

He sat back in his chair and shook his head. The room seemed to brighten slightly.

“Well, let’s just agree to differ, shall we? Now, tell me what you know about West Ham.”

It didn’t take me long to realise that this was just a part of life with Roy. That you had to cope with these extraordinary mood swings, that when the storm broke, you simply had to tape up the windows and hide under the table until it passed. It was the same for the whole squad. The next day, I was walking to the canteen with Djibril Cissé and we heard Roy’s voice coming around the corner. Djibril squealed in fear, ripped a ventilation cover off the wall and spent the afternoon hiding in the air conditioning ducts. All because he knew that Roy thought he should have scored two against Blackburn, not just one.

It didn’t seem like a very healthy way to run a football team. I thought that Roy would do better to moderate his moods a little, but every time I suggested anything of the sort, he just turned those eyes on me and my legs went to jelly. 

But my suspicions were confirmed when West Ham came to the Stadium of Light. One goal down at half-time thanks to our failure to clear our lines at a set-piece, I’d watched from the bench as Roy had run the full gamut of emotions from angry to angrier. His fists clenched and unclenched as we struggled to get to grips with Gianfranco Zola’s side. When Djibril headed wide when unmarked in the box, Roy made a low, ominous rumbling noise that seemed to last for many minutes. Movement up above me caught my eye and I saw hundreds of birds, all sorts of breeds, flapping in a panic, desperate to clear our airspace. It was all a little disconcerting. Roy left the technical area just before the half-time whistle blew. 

“Chin up, Djibril,” I said, patting our striker on the back as we walked down the tunnel. “You’re getting in the right positions, that’s what counts. And besides…” I leaned into him and whispered, “…If the boss is going to have a pop at anyone, it’s going to be El-Hadji Diouf, isn’t it?” 

We both turned and saw Diouf spitting in the face of Delilah, the Black Cat mascot who’d tried to shake his hand as he walked down the tunnel. We laughed. Yep, Diouf would clearly be the whipping boy today. We were wrong. 

We knew something was amiss as soon as we walked into the dressing-room because the tactics board was on fire. We stood and stared as the smoke coiled around the room, too stunned to know what to do. 

“Out of the way, ya daft bastards! Let me put it out!” shouted Ricky and he bundled in with a large fire extinguisher. 

“Leave that fire alone!” roared Roy’s voice from a toilet cubicle. 

“Are you crazy, Roy?” Ricky bellowed back. “We’ll all die of smoke inhalation here!”

There was a long pause and then a crash as the door to the cubicle was booted off its hinges. Calmly, Roy strode out, picked up the door and used it to smash the blazing tactics board across the room, guiding it straight into the shower with a perfectly executed square cut that would not have looked out of place down the road at Chester-le-Street, were it not for the fact that it was executed with a toilet door. Roy then threw the door down, reached into the showers and turned them on, condemning what remained of his plans to a watery grave. He turned around and looked his squad up and down. 

“El-Hadji,” he said with a sepulchral rasp. “If I hear of you violating Delilah again, I will remove your saliva glands with a ice cream scoop.”

El-Hadji fainted. 

“Reidy,” he said, addressing our tubby winger. “If you don’t start tackling back, I’ll make you eat them.”

Andy looked thoughtful for a moment and then conflicted. Then he shuddered and turned away. Then licked his lips. Then he started to sob.

“Roy?” I asked quietly. 

“Shut it, Bobby.”

“Okay!” I said brightly. 

Roy reached behind him and pulled a claw hammer out of his back pocket. The whole squad took a step backwards as one. 

“You will get back out there and win this game,” he growled. “Or I will start popping kneecaps. Do you understand me? 

They didn’t win. They lost. And a number of players jumped the advertising hoardings and sneaked out with the fans. 

“What are you going to do?” whispered Karren as I watched Kenwyne Jones try to squeeze himself into the hood of an old lady’s anorak. “Keane won’t last long if he carries on like this.”

“I don’t know,” I mumbled. “But I’m going to have to try something, aren’t I? If we don’t beat Bolton next weekend, we’re in serious trouble.”

The following afternoon, I took Roy to a quiet little cafe in Roker. It was a bracing autumnal day, overcast and moody. The sea was crashing against Roker Pier, sending white spray all over the small lighthouse at the end. It was the perfect sort of day to hide away with a nice cup of tea. Having spent the last few weeks in a German prisoner-of-war camp in 1944 and a week before that at Italia 90 with Bobby Robson, I suddenly realised how much I’d missed home. 

But any thought of relaxation vanished when Roy told the old lady behind the counter that, “Did you want a mug or a cup?” was, “a stupid question, the kind of pointless, stupid, ridiculous question that no-one really cares about. Have you really not got anything better to ask me than, ‘Did you want a mug or a cup?’ Stick it up your bollix.”

It was so awkward, the poor woman had a bit of a funny turn and the owner had to call her husband to pick her up. 

We sat down as discreetly as we could at a small table by a vast window that looked out to sea. Behind me, a noticeboard carried a cheerful advert for Christmas shopping with cartoon penguins all over it.  

“Penguins,” he snarled at me, shaking his head in dismay. “Absolute gobshite wankers.”

I shook my head. 

“Roy, this isn’t working.” I said firmly. 

“Well, that’s your fault, Bobby, you chose this place.”

“No, not the cafe, Roy,” I said. “This. This job. Sunderland. You’re not happy and the players are not happy and the club is going to get relegated. You’ve got to change. You can’t keep treating people like this. It doesn’t matter who it is, it could be your top goalscorer, your assistant manager or even that poor woman who was only doing her job by asking you if you wanted a mug or a cup. You’ve got everyone running scared and no-one works well when they’re scared.”

“Pah!” snorted Roy. “You want to know what it’s like working scared, you should have worked with Brian Clough. He once removed one of Darren Wassall’s kidneys in his sleep and sold it to Malaysian organ traders, just to teach him not to be late for training. But I’ll tell you what, it worked. That’s discipline, Bobby.”

“That’s not discipline, Roy,” I said in horror. “That’s awful. And illegal on a number of levels.”

“And what about Ferguson, eh?” smiled Keane grimly. “I mean, I wasn’t scared of him and you can forget about that hairdryer nonsense, but I still remember him threatening to nail Nani to the wall as a warning to others. And look at all the things Ferguson won.”

“But you’re missing the point, Roy. The game has changed. We don’t respond to that level of discipline anymore. Football’s changed, there isn’t the risk in the dressing-room now. In your day, the manager could fine you two weeks wages and you might struggle to make your mortgage payment that month. Nowadays, the players might not even notice. In the old days, if you were shipped out of a big club because you’d upset the manager, your reputation would be poisoned and you might never get back at that level. Christ, Roy, a modern-day player could gun down a litter of puppies on live television and the supporters would hit Twitter in their droves, posting grainy pictures to ‘prove’ that the puppies fired first. Even if the club did sack him or sell him, there would be five other clubs tripping over themselves to offer him enormous wages. You can’t frighten these people into following instructions. It’s a false economy. What you need to do is care.” 

“Why Bobby? You tell me one reason why I should care,” he snarled. 

“Because if you don’t,” I said, “you’ll be out of this job in no time. They’ll stop playing for you, they’ll resent you and they’ll cost you your best chance at replicating your success as a player in the dugout. And, yeah, you might get another job, but it won’t be at this level and if you don’t change your ways, the same things will happen. You’ve got to change. ”

“I’m not changing,” he said coldly. “They can change.”

“You’ve got to change, Roy,” I said quietly. “Because if you’re not in football, you’ll be outside football looking in. You’ll be an angry pundit, losing his temper with everything. You’ll be a columnist, railing against the dying of the light and telling everyone how much better it used to be in your day. You’ll be writing autobiography after autobiography, every one a bleak and nasty exercise in score settling. Roy, if you don’t change…you’ll be Eamon Dunphy.”

Roy stared at me. 

“You say that again…If you’ve got the balls.”

“You. Will. Be. Eamon. Dunphy.”

“I should kill you where you stand,” Roy growled. 

“Search your heart, Roy. You know it to be true.”

Outside, the rain lashed against the window, the trees bent almost double against the wind. 

“Look at that out there,” he said quietly. “Wet, windy, wild and nasty. And it’s like that here almost every day from September to April. God, I love it here in the North-East. I don’t want to leave.”

“You don’t have to leave, Roy. You can make this work. You just need to control your emotions.”

Roy’s head dropped. 

“I just get so…angry, Bobby. It’s like an explosion inside me and I just can’t stop it from going off.”

“I have some relaxation techniques. I can share them with you if you like?”

He stared at me. 

“None of that hippy crap is it? Because you can stick that up your bollix.”

“No, it’s not…hang on, how would I stick it up my bollocks? How would I stick anything up my bollocks?”

“It’s a figure of speech, Bobby.”

“I’ve genuinely never heard anyone but you say that before.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” I said. “I’ve heard of stick it up your arse. Everyone’s heard of that. But physiologically speaking, it should be impossible to stick anything up your bollocks.”

“Tell me about the relaxation technique, Bobby.”

“Okay. Shut your eyes.”

Roy’s eyes widened. 

“It’s okay, Roy. Just shut your eyes and listen to what I say.”

He stared at me for a few moments but then relented and did what I said.

“Okay, I want you to imagine the countryside, huge fields, long hedgerows, rolling hills, that sort of thing.”

“Done.”

“Right,” I said. “Now keep in mind that countryside, but now imagine a small village in the middle of that countryside.”

“Is it an evil village?”

I sighed. 

“No, it’s not an evil village. It’s a nice village. There are cottages, there’s a grocery shop, there’s a post office, there’s a pub. That sort of thing.”

“Okay, Bobby. I’ve got your village. Now, what do you want me to do with it? Do you want me to set on fire?”

“No! No, just keep it in mind. Your village, in the countryside, but now it’s evening. It’s dusk. And it’s starting to snow.”

“Ok, it’s snowing.”

“See the snow, Roy. See it falling on the village. Watch it gently piling up on the rooftops.”

“I can see it.”

“Tell me about it.”

“It’s white.”

I shook my head sadly.

“Tell me more.”

Roy took a deep breath and then it all came out. 

“Ok. I can see it piling up. I can see it on the top of the branches in the trees. I can see it covering the gardens. I can see it piling up on the old post box there. And on the walls. And…Bobby! There’s a cat out on the wall, a big ginger tabby cat and he’s out in the snow!”

“Ok, that’s great, Roy. Why don’t you have someone open a window, let the light of the house spill out on the snow and have the cat climb through the window and into the warm.” 

“Yeah,” said Roy. “There he goes, look at that. He’s in now. He’s in the window. He’s so warm and toasty, the little scamp. I’m going to find some milk for… hang on.”

He shook himself back into the now, looking baffled. 

“That was extraordinary, Bobby. I’ve not felt that calm since before Triggs passed away. How do you do that?”

I shrugged. 

“It’s nothing, just a basic bit of visualisation. It comes in handy when your boss is a malevolent six-inch heeled monster who rules with a rod of steel and you need to be able to sleep at night.”

“I’m taking that as a compliment, Bobby,” whispered Karren.

“It’s not a compliment!” I said. 

“What?” asked Roy.

“Nothing,” I blustered. 

“Whatever,” said Roy. “So when do I have to do this? When I go to sleep? When I wake up?”

“No,” I said. “Just do it when you need to. Make it your calm place. Make sure that you go there whenever you feel the fires burning. And then see what happens. We can still turn this around, you know.”

I said it with the greatest confidence, but I must admit that I didn’t feel so bold at half-time with Bolton beating us 3-1 in front of our own fans. It had all started so brightly. Djibril had opened the scoring and it looked as if we might be on the way to three crucial points. But then Matty Taylor equalised with a header, another set-piece cost us two minutes later thanks to Gary Cahill and then Johan Elmander rounded Craig Gordon to make it three. Never mind the players, I feared for my own safety back in the dressing-room. 

Once again, Roy had made his way down there early and he was waiting for us. The lads were a bit unsure and I physically had to push a sobbing Chimbonda into the room. At the first sight of the hapless French full-back, I saw Roy’s jawbone jut out and I watched in trepidation as his fists started to flex as if they were kneading invisible dough. The room was silent. 

“Look at it now,” he whispered audibly, “…piling up on those rooftops…so crisp, so firm.”

The players exchanged worried looks. 

“Lads, sit down. Take a drink. And listen to me. You’re holding on too tight, you’re frightened of your own shadow. And a lot of that is my fault. Look, you’ve got to believe in yourselves. I brought you to this club because I know good players. I played with good players my entire career. Except for that weird bit with Kléberson and Eric Djemba-Djemba. But the rest of the time they were really, really good. And you’re good too. You just need to calm down and let it show.”

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Roy went round the room, stopping with every player and telling them what he thought was their greatest attribute. Then, like every decent football-themed after-dinner speaker, he finished off with a Cloughie anecdote.

“Lads, let me tell you what Brian Clough said to my team once when we’d lost our way. He said, ‘Just get the ball and give it to someone else in a red shirt. That’s all. Don’t worry about the rest. Everything else will follow. That’s what I want you to do now.’ Would you do that for me now, lads?”

They would. And they did. First Kenwyne Jones bundled past Cahill and lashed a shot into the top corner. Then, with 10 minutes left, Reid’s swirling cross found Djibril at the far post and he levelled from close range. We almost got a winner too, but Jussi Jaaskelainen made an incredible save to prevent Djibril from sealing his hat-trick. It didn’t matter though. We’d reacted. We’d grabbed a game back having let it slip. And we’d done it because Roy had kept his temper and remembered that there are two sides to man-management. 

I looked at him out there, disappointed with himself that two points had been dropped, but not ashamed of himself because of the performance that had saved one. He knew what had happened here. He turned and gave me a smile. 

I tried to lean forward to give him a hug, but I couldn’t shift my weight forward. He looked at me strangely as I hung on my heels for a moment and then slowly tipped over onto my back. 

“Sxghhhlrbvrmatc,” I burbled, slowing down as I approached the ground and then passing gently through it, past the grass, and then the soil and then some complicated pipework and away into a swirling vortex of everything and nothing. 

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.