Theorising that radio-controlled clouds could help Qatar manufacture a climate suitable for football, the authorities experimented… and very 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. 

Pain. Pulsing pain behind the eyes. A body that ached like a rotten tooth. Darkness. A mouth agape against moist… what was that? It wasn’t grass and it wasn’t mud. It was soft and yielding, but false. Synthetic. 

“Sorry Bobby!” shouted someone from close by. I rolled my head to one side and a young man in a white tracksuit grinned apologetically at me. Then he turned and with an audible ‘phooom!’ sprinted away, his boots pulsing neon blue as they kissed the… vivid yellow pitch.

“What the hell’s happened to the grass?” I groaned. 

“Grass?” exclaimed another tracksuited young man. “Here?” He threw back his head and laughed. Then he too ran off, his boots flashing red as he went, a sound like a revving engine rising out of them. 

“All right, lads,” said an older voice, a zesty Northern Irish accent. “That ball hit him pretty hard and you can’t be too careful with bangs on the head. Bobby, are you all right? How many fingers am I holding up?”

I looked at him. He was a shortish man with a grey side parting, dressed in a tracksuit with three lions on the badge. He was a little stout and he had teeth that could have illuminated the darkest catacombs. 

“Brendan Rodgers?” I said. “You’re the England manager?”

Brendan laughed. 

“Jesus Christ, Bobby. You really have taken a knock on the head, haven’t you? I’m not the England manager, no. And neither are you. You’re the coach and I’m the… I suppose, ‘ideological consort’, would be the best way of putting it,” he said, doing quote-fingers. “Harry’s the manager. We’d better get you checked out. Come on, come with me.”

“Harry’s the England manager,” I repeated quietly as he pulled me up from the ground. 

“He certainly is, “ said Brendan. “He’s been after it long enough, so he has. I’m worried about you though, Bob. We can’t have you losing your memory now, not the day before the World Cup Final.”

I looked around, rubbing my head. The after-effects of a leap take about an hour to wear off and it’s not a comfortable ride. Imagine being very hungover in a children’s soft play area and you’re halfway there. Then add the bruising from a minor car crash to the equation and you’ve pretty much got it. We were in a large indoor facility, like an aircraft hanger, the roof lined with lights. It was so vast that the shouts of 20 or so men dissipated into the air without any echo. There were large banks of seating to one side, but the lights were so bright that all you could see was the pitch. Which was really, really yellow. 

“Seriously,” I said as we walked slowly off the pitch. “Why is the pitch that colour?”

“Well, now,” said Brendan. “If you’re going to have a black ball, you’ve got to have a pitch that it’ll stand out on. Grass has been a little hard to grow since the Blight of 2021, so we moved to 4G pitches some time ago. This here is a 5G, it regenerates on a 24-hour basis. Apparently the 6G stuff they’re working on, that’s something else. The blades of grass are edible and are fantastic for rehydration. Ah, but what they won’t think of next.” We reached the edge of the pitch and stopped in front of a large steel door. “Hang on, let me leave the lads with something to do and I’ll get you to the medical room. Then we’ll get you to Harry, see what he says. Stay there. LADS! Let’s get some drills going. Jack! Arthur! Orion! Come on, let’s get this going!” 

I watched him jog away. His boots didn’t flash a pretty colour, but if I cocked my head to the side, I could swear that I heard a small voice in the heel saying, “Believe! Believe! Believe!” with every step. It sounded like his voice. I shook my head and pulled the heavy lever on the door. There was a loud groaning noise and it began to open. I heard a panicked shout behind me and then everything went white. 

“Well, well, well,” said a female voice. “That was almost a record-breaking effort. You nearly killed yourself within two minutes of arrival. I suppose that would have saved us some time, if nothing else. ”

“Karren?” I opened my eyes. My face felt numb. I was laid out on a white-sheeted bed in a small, bright room that smelled clean and clinical. 

“Yes, I’m here,” she said. “And so are you. Though you are rather more here than me. This being a hallucination of sorts. But you know that already.”

“Where… when am I?”

“It’s 2030, Bobby, and it’s the week of the World Cup Final. Bafflingly, England are involved. You are on the coaching team. And your… erm… expertise is required.”

I tried to lift my head, but it hurt too much. 

“What happened to me?”

“You were in a blizzard. And for far longer than you should have been. Only the very strongest should be able to survive in a blizzard, but for some reason you decided to walk out into one in shorts and a t-shirt. And you are not, Bobby Manager, among the strongest things to have been in a blizzard.”

“Why is there a blizzard in… where are we?”

“We’re in the Fifa Territories, Bobby. In what used to be known as Antartica.”

I thought about this for a bit. 

“I’m not with you,” I said eventually. 

“Fifa were having a few issues. The usual issues. Custodial in some cases. But it was more than that. They weren’t hugely enthusiastic about the idea of paying taxes, they wanted more control of their image and branding and obedience to general social codes. There was a bit of moral furore over some genetic experimentation, you know the stuff. Anyway, they looked at the legal costs and ramifications of continuing to base themselves in the first world, and they decided that the affordable and altogether safer option was to buy Antartica.”

“You can’t buy Antartica,” I said firmly. “It belongs to dozens of nations under some elaborate treaty. It’s for scientific research.”

“You can buy it and Fifa did buy it. There were 53 signatories to the Antarctic Treaty System and after the crash of 2024, they all needed money. Quite desperately, in fact. You know the old saying: everything is worth what the purchaser will pay for it. Well, Fifa were prepared to pay a lot.”

“That’s ridiculous, Karren. What do they get for their money? How is it worthwhile? It’s a desert of ice.”

“They get lots of things for their money, Bobby. Principally, more money.  Not only are all the World Cups going to be held here from now on, but all the other Fifa competitions too. And Fifa have 100% of the TV rights, the advertising deals, the tickets sales, the merchandising, the lot, cake, icing, cherry and all. Added to which, the facilities are so advanced here that club sides are coming over for expensive training camps. There are indoor pitches, youth academies, hotels, animatronic brothels, shopping malls, the works. They make a lot of money. And besides, you’re not thinking it through, Bobby. It’s not just what Fifa can get. It’s what the rest of the world can’t get.”

“Which is?”

“The Fifa executive committee members. When the Fifa Territories were established, the first thing they did was write a constitution that outlawed extradition to any other nation. They’re all safe here.” 

“But, you can’t hold World Cups in Antartica. How do the fans get here?”

“They didn’t have fans at the Qatar World Cup of 2026,” said Karren, “and there haven’t been any fans here for 2030.” 

I thought about this. 

“Wasn’t the Qatar World Cup in 2022?”

“It was, but Fifa said it was such a roaring success that they should hold it there again the next time too. And there really wasn’t anyone left with the energy to argue with them. But after all the trouble they had in ’22 with people drinking too much beer or getting too much sun or being too gay, they made one major policy change. They banned fans. At least in a physical sense. The developments in Virtual Reality technology meant that they could sell access online so that you could ‘virtually’ be in the stadium, in any seat you wanted. And the clever bit was that it didn’t matter how many people wanted to watch and it didn’t matter which seat they wanted to watch it from, hypothetically, they could sell the same ticket to billions of people. And, of course, that’s pretty much what they did. People just pick a vantage point and watch it with their headsets on. Why bother with all the travel, the queues, the weather and the hassle? Just slip on your goggles and off you go. No more sold out signs, no more ticket touts. They say that it’s the greatest thing since nano-bread.”

“What’s nano… never mind. What about the atmosphere?” said I. “What about the noise and the songs?”

“Well,” she said. “That’s where it gets interesting. Instead of running the risk of being sat next to something abhorrent like an actual football fan, Fifa created perfect virtual supporters to guarantee a cup final atmosphere for every game. A whole stadium full of them. Computer generated families of every ethnicity to make the game more diverse than ever. Beautiful women to smile bashfully when the Jumbotron cameras lingered on them at every break in play. And songs too. The Black Eyed Peas – minus Will.I.Am of course, he never recovered from the accident – are the official Fifa song writers and they’ve been working on new songs for every major match. They use social media’s hottest trending topics to guarantee cultural relevance. I have to say, it’s all very, very impressive.”

I let myself slump back onto the bed and closed my eyes. 

“Oh, Karren,” I said. “I just want to go home.”

“And home you shall soon go, my dear friend,” said a man’s voice, clipped and precise. “I believe it was John Le Carré who wrote, ‘Coming home from very lonely places, all of us go a little mad: whether from great personal success, or just an all-night drive, we are the sole survivors of a world no one else has ever seen.”

I turned around and felt my head spin. A tall, lean man stood at the door, immaculately dressed, his blonde hair swept back against his skull, thinning but with style. His mouth hung open, like a spaniel just back from the park. 

“But I do not believe for an instant that you are mad, Robert Manager. I believe that you have a concussion of some sort, a word derived from the Latin concutere, which of course means to shake violently. My dear Bobby, I feel the very fingers of fate upon my shoulder and I know that you do too. We shall shake the world violently, my friend. We shall shake it when we defeat the Germans tomorrow. But I need you with me.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Who are you?”

“Oh dear. An amnesiac episode. Transient global amnesia, I believe, is the technical term. Short-lived. Disturbing, but usually short-lived. I am the England manager, Bobby. I am Harry Kane.”

There was a very, very long pause. Harry looked at me with concern, his mouth still open, a flood plain of drool beginning to glisten at the rim of his lip. 

“You… erm…” I began. 

“No, I no longer sound as once I did,” smiled Harry. “It is good that you notice. At least then we can ascribe a date to your malady. Your amnesiac episode has swept you back to 2028 or beyond. The summer. The day I bought my cerebral implants. The others laughed. They always wondered why I would stand back and watch them squander their fortunes on sports cars and yachts and the ill-fated Cattermole Project, that desperate asteroid mining enterprise that took so many of my contemporaries into the abyss of financial ruin. But even though my faculties were woefully underdeveloped, I always knew that a life awaited me outside of this game. I always knew that my body was a forever diminishing asset, while my mind was, well, a potential resource that required considerable investment. And with my formidable savings, I was able to provide that investment. I certainly don’t regret it. Look at me, Bobby. I am 37, the age when most of my ilk are ravaged by depression, bankruptcy and despair. But I stride into a brighter future.”

He grinned and a wave of drool overwhelmed his lip and flowed to the floor.

But he was right. He was the England manager and this was a good team. I was a bit perturbed by the yellow pitch, the black ball, the boots that flashed customised lights and emitted customised noises, but once you got down to it, nothing much had changed. The ball was still round. And yes, we were in a multi-billion dollar indoor facility in the heart of Antartica, but it was still a football pitch. It still had a goal at either end.

In fact, the only thing that was really different about football was that England were apparently now quite good at it. I watched recent matches on Harry’s VR goggles that night, dropping myself down on the touchline for the comfortable 3-0 win over Clint Dempsey’s USA in the quarter-finals, experimenting with an aerial view for the tense semi-final win over Arsène Wenger’s France. Wenger, it transpired, had only taken the job on an interim basis shortly before the tournament when the team had mutinied against their last manager. It was a short-term job and, given that it was during the summer, it meant that he didn’t need to resign from Arsenal to take it. 

We had some cracking players. Jack Delancey, the captain, was my sort of midfielder. Aggressive, tenacious and eager to win. Up front, we had Orion Wright-Bumbleton-Wright, a powerfully built, red-headed youth who looked more like a varsity rower than a centre-forward. There was a great spirit in the camp, but I was worried about one thing: with so many voices in the dressing room, the message was getting lost. 

Harry was a fine man. Straight as a die and honest as the day is long, if a little wordy. But most of the tactics were left to Brendan. This was no bad thing in itself: he was a fine manager himself and you only had to look at the trophies he’d won with Chelsea for evidence of that. But he did have a tendency to overwork things and second-guess himself. Sometimes when we were doing drills, it felt that all we need was a good punt down the channels, a long ball for someone to run onto, and we could beat anyone. But the players didn’t have that option. They weren’t allowed it. The ball always had to be retained and moved around, positions of opportunity needed to open up. Harry stood calmly on the sidelines watching it all happen, doubtless turning it all over in that golden-topped genetically enhanced head of his, but he never said a word. He just drooled a bit. I guess you can have all the intelligence in the world, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll make a stand when you know something is wrong. 

I spoke to Brendan about it. I said that we needed to keep it simple. But he just gave me a funny look and handed me a small envelope. I opened it up and there was a square of card with my name written on it in capital letters.

“What’s this?” I asked. 

“Oh, nothing,” he said. And he walked off with a strange smile on his face.

While I found Brendan hard work, I liked Harry. He was good natured and generous, and he could do a crossword like nobody’s business. On the night of the final, he was incredible with the players. He slipped around the dressing room like an excellent waiter, attending to people’s needs without them even realising what they were. To the nervous, he brought encouragement. To the skittish, he brought composure. To the pumped, he brought control. He stopped next to Orion Wright-Bumbleton-Wright and put an arm around his shoulder. 

“You are well named, young man, did you know that?” 

Orion nodded.

“You see, Orion was a hunter. One of the greatest hunters of all time. He boasted that he could kill any beast that walked upon the earth; and the gods believed him too. They feared for the loss of life and it is said that they sent a scorpion to kill him, a ironic flourish typical of this period of Greek mythology, the mighty defeated by the minuscule. And yet the Gods honoured Orion too, placing him in the stars for all of eternity. And from this, you took your name.”

“Nah,” said Orion. “I was conceived in an old Ford Orion outside a nightclub in Southend. Me mum always thought it was a nice name. Mystical and stuff.” 

“Ah,” said Harry carefully. “I see. Well, the comparison works regardless. Orion was a hunter and you are a hunter too; a hunter of goals. But pride could betray you just as swiftly as it betrayed your namesake. Be humble. Be noble.”

“Er… yeah,” said Orion hesitantly. “Can I still take penalties?”

“Yes,” said Harry. “Yes, I think that should be fine.”

“Boss?” I said quietly. 

“Yes, Bobby? How is your head, by the way? Do you know, Orion, that yesterday Bobby couldn’t remember a thing about the last 20 years? Not a thing. A concussion is a terrible thing.”

“I’m fine, thanks,” I said. “But it’s almost time.”

“Right!” said Harry, standing up and pushing the creases out of his suit. “I don’t need to say much to you. You know where you are and you know what this means. You know what you’re up against and you know what you have to do. The one thing I wonder is whether you know what the people back home think of you. Well, let me tell you this; you have already won their hearts. They sit now in their millions, VR goggles charged, tensed and ready. And whatever happens here tonight, you will return as heroes. Good luck.”

Brendan wiped a tear from his eye and started to clap loudly. The players joined and stamped their studs on the tiles. I felt for the Germans if they could hear this. We were ready. Jack led the players out and onto the pitch to be presented to the VIP delegation. Harry, Brendan and I clustered at the mouth of the tunnel near the technical area. I peered into the darkness to see what was happening. There was a hush and suddenly dense lines of men and women in suits melted away. 

“Here he comes,” said Brendan. “Leading the delegation. Looks good, doesn’t he? Dignified. Amazing stuff.”

I turned and looked down the tunnel. Waddling slowly down the corridor walked a large plump chicken with feathers so beautiful that they would absolutely be the first thing you noticed, were it not for the miniaturised human head that had been grafted to its neck and supported by a shiny, wire-wrapped steel collar.

“It’s a chicken,” I said tonelessly. “It’s Sepp Blatter’s head stuck onto a chicken.”

“Amazing, isn’t it?” said Brendan in awe. “Remember when it was all about sticking your miniaturised head on a rat? God, do those people look stupid now. Who knew that you could do a chicken? Sepp knew. That’s why he stays ahead of the game. He’s always got the next angle. Clever man. He’ll live forever now. Even if he does have to change the chicken every other week.”

Blatter continued his slow parade as a phalanx of ear-piece wearing assistants fell into step behind him. He nodded politely at people as he approached the mouth of the tunnel and then glanced up and caught my eye. 

“He winked at me!” I whispered to Brendan.  

‘Ah, he’s still got it! Still got the charm. What a survivor!” 

Chicken Blatter hopped carefully up the steps and onto the pitch. The crowd went wild, thousands of computer generated apparitions bursting into applause that sounded displaced, like laughter on a 1970s sitcom. 

“People of the world!” shouted the chicken, his voice reverberating around the arena. “Welcome to the Fifa Territories! Welcome to the Fifa World Cup Final! This is what we have long dreamed of, my friends. The best in the world at the base of the world. No ice can freeze us, no snow can stop us and Loretta Lynch retired three years ago! The beautiful game is free at last!” There were more cheers. He bowed slightly, then stopped to peck at an interesting bit of 5G turf and then looked up, embarrassed. But not for long. “Yes, the new pitch is fine! I just wanted to test that it was of the right standard. That is what I was doing just then. Rejoice, world! You are free to buy what we tell you!”

And that it was it. Off he went, back down the tunnel. I hoped that it wouldn’t be long before someone discovered how to graft human heads to the bodies of foxes and then felt a bit guilty. I shook it off. It was time to get to work. Here in this sealed arena at the bottom of the earth, a bright yellow pitch was bathed in light, a black ball was bounced up and down and then placed on the centre circle. Behind one goal, the supporters broke into song. 

“Come on England, don’t let us down, 

Do it for former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, 

Not strictly English, it is fair to say, 

But he served the union well and he died yesterday.”

“How do they do that, eh?” smiled Brendan. “The Black Eyed Peas, man. They’re on top of all the breaking news.” 

“I’d rather just concentrate on the football,” I said. And there was a lot to concentrate on. We were getting battered. Jack lost possession with a sloppy pass and the Germans were through on goal inside 60 seconds. The ball was blasted over the bar, but the goal kick was wayward and we were on the back foot again. And so it continued throughout the first half. We had no out ball, we had no answer to their high press, we were like a lilo in a storm.

“We’ve got to either use the ball or keep the ball,” I grumbled. “We’re so sloppy!”

“Don’t worry, Bobby,” said Brendan. “As soon as our boys find their rhythm, we’ll be fine. They’ll have no answer to a three-man left-flank overload.”

But Germany did have an answer. They won possession, twatted the ball crossfield and came at us down our right. Jack went steaming in on their winger, but slid straight under him as his target leapt into the air, boots flashing green and white as he rose. 

“Oh, Jack,” said Harry quietly, watching his captain crash at high speed into the advertising hoardings, terrifying the 11,788 VR fans who had chosen to ‘sit’ there. 

The German winger continued his run, cut in, slipped the ball back across the edge of the penalty area and whooped in joy as his teammate smashed it into the top corner. 

“Aw, shit,” said Brendan. 

“Eloquently put,” said Harry. 

The crowd burst into song once again.

“Come on England, there’s nothing to fear, 

Unlike tomorrow’s new episode of Top Gear,

Richard Hammond flies rockets at night for kicks

You can watch it all live or on Netflix!”

“That’s just cheap,” I said, spitting on the floor. “The Black Eyed Peas should be ashamed of themselves. 

“I rather liked it,” said a soft female voice in my head. 

“Karren?” I said. 

Harry and Brendan both shot me a look.

“Nothing,” I said. “Ignore me.” They turned back to the game, I walked away. 

“It’s not working, Bobby. England are going to lose. Germany are all over them.”

“I know!” I hissed under my breath, “But what can I do? They’ve got all the way to the final on their own, I can’t just sweep in and make changes now.”

“Why not?” said Karren. “That’s your job. And besides, you have been here. It’s just you haven’t been here.”

“Well, that’s cleared that up,” I scowled. 

“You know what I mean,” she said, with a trace of irritation. “A Bobby Manager has been here all tournament long. You’re just late to the party. And you’ll be the late Bobby Manager in more ways than one if you can’t turn this around. The only reason that your comatose body hasn’t gone into full system shutdown is that there’s still a spark of life in your brain. You’re solving puzzles, besting challenges. You’re staying alive. Just. But it won’t last if you just sit on the sidelines and watch.”

“You’re right,” I said. “I’ll change it!”

“You will change nothing, Bobby, until I deem it to be appropriate.” Harry barked from the touchline without even turning around. “You’re here to make suggestions, I make the decisions.”

“You’re right, Harry. I’m sorry. But I know what we have to do. I know how we can win this game.” Brendan’s span on his heels, his nostrils flared with rage, but I had to continue. “We have to go 4-4-2. We have to get crosses in the box. We have to use Orion Wright-Bumbleton-Wright’s height, win the first balls, knock it on to the quickie. What’s his name? Blake Tumbleton-Smith-Smith? The kid on the bench whose boots shout, “Meme-monster!” whenever he accelerates. Get him on up front in the second half and we can turn this around.”

“I still think we’re better off with the three-man left flank overload,” pouted Brendan. “We haven’t given it enough of a-”

“My dear, sweet Brendan,” said Harry, turning and stroking his face tenderly with the back of one finger. “Your strategic inventiveness is one of the reasons we’ve progressed so far this year. Your shift to a back two against Catalonia in the group stages was inspired. But we have to accept what is obvious to everyone. We’re being outclassed. I say we go with Bobby’s plan.”

“Understood,” said Brendan, bowing his head. “For the greater good.”

And so we went to work at half-time. It turned out that no-one had used 4-4-2 for a number of years. No-one could find a pen or any paper, so I had to get the computers out to illustrate exactly where everyone needed to run, beaming hastily scrawled diagrams to the players’ watches. But we got our ideas across eventually, even if Brendan did make a covert attempt to invert our full-backs without telling anyone.

In the second half, it was a different story. Desperate to press us as we messed about in possession, the Germans never expected us to go the other way and start smashing long balls about. We caught them unawares with a rain of punts that we sent forward for Wright-Bumbleton-Wright. He was winning everything in the air, nodding it down into the danger zone. We knew it was just a matter of time. 10 minutes in fact. That’s how long it took us to make the breakthrough and it was, of course, Blake Tumbleton-Smith-Smith who was the man on the spot when it counted. 

Two minutes later, we were ahead, a powerful Wright-Bumbleton-Wright header from a corner that nearly the burst the net. I ran down the touchline, adrenaline coursing through my veins, bouncing up and down, saluting the crowd, before realising of course that none of them were really there. I turned and sprinted back to where Harry and Brendan were embracing gleefully in the technical area. But something was wrong. They were beginning to melt away like wraiths.

“You’ve done it, Bobby!” said Karren. “Well done!”

“Have we won the World Cup?” I asked as the floor began to turn to a yellowish treacle. 

“Of course not,” she laughed. “Germany will equalise and then go on to to win on penalties. Haven’t you listened to anything I’ve ever told you?” 

My feet became trapped in the thickening turf and the noise inside the arena wobbled and contorted in the air around me. 

“It wasn’t about winning the World Cup,” she said. “It never is. It was about forcing them to listen to you. It was about standing up and fighting for what you believe in: old-fashioned orthodox football tactics and a lot of pointing.  

“Prrrrfxxxh,” I burbled and I fell through the floor. I was leaping. Leaping through time and space. I wanted this to be the last leap, the leap that took me home. But, oh boy, was I wrong.