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 Bobby in a voice that only he 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. 

Beep. 

Beep. 

Beep. 

Someone make that noise stop. 

Beep. 

Beep. 

Someone make that noise stop. And can someone please get me a Paracetamol. The pain in my head, my skull feels like a leaking balloon, contracting around my brain and squeezing it until it pops. My bones are throbbing. 

Beep. 

“Hello, Bobby,” said a soft female voice. 

I opened my eyes slowly and a familiar face swam into focus. She was standing above me, looking at me with what looked like mild amusement. 

“Karren Brady,” I croaked. 

“You’ve been asleep,” she said. “Frankly, we weren’t sure if you’d ever wake up.”

Slowly, gingerly, I moved my head to one side. I was in a bed, a nice bed. Fresh white sheets. The room was small, a tall machine stood next to me, beeping. Wires linked us together. 

“I’m home,” I said quietly. 

“Not exactly,” smiled Karren. “You’re in a hospital in Doha. You were struck on the head by a radio-controlled cloud. But you’re going home. That’s why I’m here. You’re coming with me.”

I laughed and then regretted it, my aching body rejecting the mirth. 

“We did it, Karren. All those challenges. Keeping Brian and Peter together at Forest, calming down Roy Keane, escaping to victory, multiple penalty shoot-out defeats with England. We did it.”

Karren stared at me blankly. 

“I have absolutely no idea what you’re babbling about.” 

I didn’t know if that was true, but to be honest, I didn’t care. “How long was I out?” I asked. 

“Four years,” said Karren brightly. 

I didn’t say anything. Not immediately. I didn’t know what to say. So I started to cry instead. 

“Why are you crying?” asked Karren, cocking her head to one side. 

“Why do you think I’m crying?” I howled. “Four years?! That’s… that’s… that’s forever! That’s four years of my life I’ve lost!”

“Four years isn’t that much,” sniffed Karren. “Eat right, don’t smoke, do exercise, you’ll live until you’re 80. Four years is just 5%. It’s nothing. Get over it and move on.”

“That’s easy for you to say,” I snapped. “But I have to… hang on. What do you mean, I’m coming with you?” 

Karren smiled again. “I have a little job for you.”

“I am not going back to West Ham, Karren. The last time we worked together, you tried to Taser my testicles.”

“Don’t be silly, Bobby. You’d never get the West Ham job now. Slaven Bilić is there now. They have an Olympic Stadium and a bright future. The days of hiring the likes of you are, mercifully, long gone. Besides, I don’t work there anymore. I work at the Football Association.”

“Then what do you want from me?” 

“Bobby Manager,” she said. “I’m here to offer you the England job.”

“Not a fucking chance,” I said and I started to get out of bed.”

“Don’t get out of bed, Bobby,” Karren said. 

“Why? So you can talk me into it? I’m not that stu-AAAARGH!”

“No,” said Karren as my tears flowed freely again. “Because your catheter is still attached.”

We sat in the departure lounge in silence. Karren flicked through a copy of Time magazine. I just stared into space. I’d been awake for two weeks, slowing regaining my strength and rebuilding atrophied muscles. I needed much more time, but Karren had made it clear that there wasn’t any. My country needed me. Sort of. 

“Why am I the number one candidate?” I’d asked her.

“There isn’t anyone else,” Karren told me. 

“Alan Curbishley?”

“No-one’s seen him since 2008.”

“Harry Redknapp?”

“Got QPR relegated. Twice.”

“What about Sam Allardyce?”

“We had him at West Ham. Awful man. Poos with the door open.”

“But what happened to Roy Hodgson? You said that he was doing the job, that he’d got England into the European Championships with a 100% record?”

Karren had shaken her head sadly. 

“There was an…incident. Roy went rogue at a press conference. Someone repeatedly asked him why he wasn’t taking Andy Carroll to France and he just flipped out, started chucking chairs at the man from the Sun, screaming, “He’s been injured for the better part of five years, you fucking morons. Are you that easily impressed?” We had to stand him down. It was for his own good.”

“But that still doesn’t explain why you want me,” I’d said. 

“You won the Champions League with Liverpool. You did quite well with West Ham. You’re a candidate.”

I gave her a look.

She sighed. 

“Okay. We’ll try honesty. Bobby, you’re yesterday’s man and there’s a strong possibility that you’ll suffer lingering brain injuries that will impair your judgement for the rest of your life. Thus, the FA board members think you’re perfect England manager material.”

“What about you?” I asked.

“I think you’re the perfect patsy, Bobby. We bring you into the job on a tide of goodwill and nostalgia and if it all goes wrong, then at least the next idiot to sign up for this will be able to hurdle the low expectations you leave as your legacy. Welcome to the team.” 

“Karren,” I’d said. “You always know how to make a man feel special. Now why don’t you just fuck off?”

“We’ll pay you a one-off sum of £1m to take the team to the European Championship and you can have another £5m in the unlikely event that you win it.”

“I accept your terms and conditions!” I’d shouted. 

And so we found ourselves in the departure lounge together, waiting for a flight that would take me back to England. And back to football. Real football. 

“What was it like?” asked Karren idly, without looking up from her magazine. 

“What was what like?”

“The coma. What was it like? What do you remember?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” I said. 

“Try me.”

“A series of football-related challenges, each more fiendish than the last, designed by an abstract version of you who lived in my head, taunting me at every turn.”

There was a long silence. 

“You’re a very odd man, Bobby,” she said. 

We didn’t speak much on the flight back to Heathrow. 

The press conference went as well as you would expect when a man who has been in a coma for four years is suddenly named as the England manager. 

“Is this some kind of a joke?” asked Henry Winter.

“No, Henry,” I said calmly. “Next question, please.”

Every hand in the room went up.

“If your next question is, ‘No, seriously, Bobby. Is this a joke?’ please put your hand down,” I said. 

Almost all of the hands went down. 

“I hesitate to ask,” said Henry, “as I fear it may make this process even more farcical, but have you actually seen any football recently?” 

“Not as such, Henry, no.” There was a loud groan from the press corps. “But I’m confident that with simple values like hard work, good organisation and a lot of pointing, we’ll be absolutely fine in France. Every nation in Europe would love to have players like Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and John Terry.”

A young man in an FA blazer skittered over to my table and whispered in my ear.  

“Retired?!” I gasped. “All of them? Then who’s left?

The man whispered again. 

“Who the fuck is Jamie Vardy?” I said, as the camera flashes lit up the room.  

The headlines the next day were really very unkind. 

So much had changed since my accident. Not only were Leicester City back in the Premier League, but they had inexplicably won the title. And if that wasn’t enough, Tottenham had suddenly become the very model of a modern football club, combining exquisite technical ability with calm defiance in defence. Manchester United were boring, Liverpool were odd and Manchester City still hadn’t experienced the kind of sustained consistency you’d expect for the better part of a gazillion pounds. Thank God for Arsenal and their unstinting desire always to do not quite well enough. They were the rock I clutched in the confusion. 

I needed help. There was no way I could do the job on my own. I needed someone who had actually been conscious since 2012 and who knew about the little things, like who was good at football. But I couldn’t seem to get anyone to take the job. I thought that perhaps someone who had been turned down in the past might want to come and help out, but Alan Curbishley was still MIA, Harry Redknapp’s phone had a foreign ring tone and never picked up and Sam Allardyce just laughed and hung up on me. There was only a week before we left for France. 

I returned to my hotel room that night, head hung low. I took off my jacket, tossed it on the bed and then nearly soiled myself when a low voice rumbled out of the darkness. 

“Are you an ostrich?”

“Jesus Henry Christ!” I exclaimed, backing away to the door. “Who are you? What are you doing in here?”

A large shadow moved in the gloom. 

“Are you flexible enough to get your head in the sand? My suspicion would be no.”

“Look!” I blustered. “Take my money! Take it all!” 

“I don’t want your money, Bobby.” The shadow reached out and pulled the chord of a large lamp. “My name is Nigel Pearson, son of Alan, and if by my life or my death I can save you, I will.”

“You… want a job?”

Nigel nodded and sat down in an armchair. 

“Well,” I said. “I do need an assistant manager. And you have shown a certain amount of aptitude by gaining access to my hotel room. How did you do that, by the way?”

Nigel smiled. “I killed a porter.”

I stared at him in horror. 

Nigel laughed uproariously. 

“I’m joking with you, Bobby! I’m just joking! I didn’t kill him. And I’m convinced he’ll make a full recovery. The important thing is that I’m here. I can help you. You need to rule with an iron fist and I’ve seen enough of you to know that there’s no iron anywhere on you.”

“Oh, thanks,” I said. 

“It’s not an insult. You need a mix of characters. Take law enforcement, for example. When you’re trying to break a suspect, you always need a good cop to make a connection with a suspect. That’s you.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad,”

“And then you need a bad cop. Someone to shove the bastard down a flight of stairs if he gets a bit lippy. A few internal injuries, nothing that shows up when you drag him in front of the magistrate the next morning. You know what I mean?” 

“Well…” I stammered. “I don’t think we need to do anything like that.”

Nigel crossed the room in two strides and pushed his face into mine. His breath smelled of HP sauce. 

“Are you frightened?” he hissed at me.

“Yes,” I whimpered. 

“Not nearly frightened enough.” He looked around the room furtively. “I know what hunts you.”

I gave him the job if he promised to go home and leave me alone. It seemed the wisest course of action at the time. 

Picking a squad was relatively easy, not least because there are only about 29 eligible players in the Premier League now. Nigel guided me through the process and showed me clips of the youngsters whose development I’d missed. I was particularly impressed with Dele Alli and John Stones, but not so much with Wayne Rooney. As far as I could see, he’d lost his pace and his touch, and he was still as volatile as ever. 

“You have to pick him, Bobby,” said Nigel. “He’s scored more goals for England than anyone else ever.”

“Yeah,” I said, “but he scored most of those goals when he could still run. If we’re just picking on the basis of the past, why don’t we just partner him with Gary Lineker?”

There was a loud crack as the pen in Nigel’s hand shattered. His eyes bulged and his jaw stiffened. Drops of blood blotted his notebook as he stared at me in silent fury. 

I decided, on balance, that there was a place for Rooney in the squad. 

Our first opponents were Russia, the old men of the tournament, grizzled and unfancied. The worst kind of team to go up against. Win, and no one makes anything of it. Lose, and you’re in trouble already. I knew Karren wouldn’t hesitate to pile the pressure on me, though she’d been conspicuous by her absence thus far. I’d grown so used to her snide comments and asides in my head that I… I sort of missed her. But every time I saw her, she turned and walked away. It was concerning. What was she planning? 

Nigel was concerning me too, but I had to admit that he did come in handy in the dressing-room. There was no messing around from the players when Nigel was around. Whenever he came close to them, their heads dropped and they fell silent. It was like watching a dominant male prowling around a zoo enclosure. He didn’t have to demand respect, people gave it to him quickly just in case he tried to take it by force.

“This one’s got chewing gum,” he barked, standing next to Adam Lallana. 

“I haven’t, gaffer!” Lallana squealed. “I promise you, I haven’t.”

Nigel shook his head and mouthed the word, “Liar,” to me across the dressing-room. Quick as a flash, his hand whipped out around Lallana’s throat. The Liverpool midfielder tried to scream, but as soon as he opened his mouth, Nigel thrust his other hand inside and started to root about.

“GGGGNFFFH!” exclaimed Lallana as tears filled his eyes. 

Nigel withdrew his hand and shook off the spittle. 

“It turns out he’s telling the truth, boss,” he said. “No chewing gum.”

Lallana sagged against the wall and rubbed his mouth. Nigel glared at him, made a V with his fingers, pointed to his own eyes and then to Lallana.

“I’m watching you,” he growled and then he strode away. We won 2-0, both goals by Harry Kane. I decided to leave Lallana on the bench. He didn’t really look like he was in the mood for it. 

The next game was the one we’d all been waiting for, the chance to face off against Chris Coleman’s Wales. We knew that everyone back at home would be up for this one, that there were bragging rights at stake, that the people of Wales would never let their neighbours forget it if we failed to win. More so than ever, we had an obligation to our country. But they had Gareth Bale. 

Bale gave me nightmares. He was so quick, so strong, so deft, so… everything. How could he possibly be stopped? Nigel told me not to worry about it and insisted that he had everything covered. 

I saw Chris before the game. He’s always good company, is Chris. He’s got that cheeky smile and that joie de vivre. We were catching up in the tunnel as the groundsmen made late checks on the state of the pitch. Then I saw Nigel. 

“Nigel!” I shouted. “Do you know Chris?”

Nigel spat on the ground and walked over, looking Chris up and down carefully. Chris held out his hand and smiled. 

“Good to see you again, big man,” he said. “How are you keeping?”

Nigel just looked at his outstretched hand and sneered. 

“Oh, right!” grinned Chris. “Playing the hard man, eh? Rightio. Well, when this game is over, whatever the result, you two need to come for a drink with me, yeah? I think we’ll need it!”

Nigel jerked forward and wrapped his hand around Chris’s throat. 

“Listen to me, you grinning freak showp,” he growled. “If Gareth Bale plays for more than five minutes today, I will pull your little cock out of its socket and make you eat it, do you understand me? Bulge your eyes if you understand me.”

Chris’s eyes bulged. 

“Good,” said Nigel. “I’m glad we’ve had this conversation.” He let go and Chris dropped to floor, gagging helplessly. 

“I’m so sorry,” I said, leaning over Chris as he gasped for life. “He’s not usually like that.” 

Bale was withdrawn after three minutes. He rubbed the back of his calf ostentatiously and then quickly retired to the dressing-room. Nigel watched him go and laughed. 

“See, Bobby. Ha ha! Bad cops and good cops.” 

We won 1-0. A Daniel Sturridge volley. 

The last game was against Slovakia. We were already through, but we wanted to top the group and get ourselves a good route to the final. Nigel felt that the lads were going to get complacent. We chatted about it over drinks in my hotel room the night before the game. 

“I’ve seen it in their faces,” he said. “It’s all been too easy for them.”

“Maybe you should ease off on them,” I said gently. “We don’t want to make them so anxious that they can’t function.”

Nigel shrugged. 

“Maybe you’re right, boss. Maybe you’re right.”

My stomach rumbled. I hadn’t been eating properly with all the work and media commitments. 

“Are you hungry?” asked Nigel. “Here, try one of these. I got the chef to help me make them.”

He passed me a paper bag with the most enormous pair of pork scratchings you’ve ever seen. I’ve always loved those things. I thanked him and took a big bite of one, it was outstanding. Hard on the exterior, but filled with that soft, salty fluffiness that’s so delightfully moorish. 

“Where did you get pork scratchings from in France?” I chuckled through the crumbs. 

“Oh, they’re not pork scratchings, Bobby,” he said. “I was attacked by one of the hotel guard dogs when I was coming back from a night-time stroll. I got him with my car-keys and took his ears as a trophy.”

I didn’t realise it was possible to be quite so violently sick. 

Nigel certainly had a measure of the situation though – there really was a bit of light-heartedness in the dressing-room before the game. It ceased when he walked through the door, obviously. Dele Alli stopped talking, mid-joke. Harry Kane found something very interesting on the floor to look at. Adam Lallana hissed and hid inside his locker. Now they were focused.

“We’re almost there, boys,” I said. “Win this game for me and I promise you we’ll have an easier ride to the final.”

We won 2-0, a Rooney penalty and a Sturridge header. But I couldn’t deliver on my promise. 

Germany had had a terrible tournament. They had beaten Ukraine, but then they’d taken their foot off the pedal and lost to Poland. Another defeat to Northern Ireland saw them plunge into third place, which, because of the strange vagaries of the expanded tournament, deflected them into our path. That was just what we needed. I made the mistake of telling Nigel that I’d been in this situation before and then couldn’t back it up with any evidence that wasn’t a coma-memory. He gave me a funny look. I really didn’t like his funny looks. They weren’t very funny. 

“Lads,” I said before kick-off. “This is our chance to get our own back on history. You’re not just doing it for this England. You’re doing it for all the Englands that have fallen to Germany before. The England of 2010, the England of 1996, the England of 1990, the England of 1970. Brave, bold men who fell just short when it really mattered. But you’re going to buck that trend. You are going to beat this wretched Germany team and you’re going to take a huge step towards immortality.” 

We were a goal down after two minutes. The ball was played back to John Stones and instead of clearing it quickly, he sat down and started to sketch it. Thomas Müller didn’t need to be asked twice, he nipped in, stole it away and then thundered it past Joe Hart. It all felt so avoidable. 

Nigel wanted to have a quiet word with John at half-time. Centre-back to centre-back. They went for a chat in the stadium car park, but when Nigel returned alone he said that John had been feeling poorly and had decided to go home. That was a real blow to us, he was a popular member of the team and I don’t know why he didn’t want to say goodbye. 

But we rallied in the second half and it wasn’t long before we started to put the world champions under sustained pressure. Sturridge hit a superb strike to bring us back into the game and I couldn’t believe it when Dele Alli hit the bar in injury time. Extra-time came and went without incident, but instead with a mounting sense of inevitability. Of course, it was going to go to a penalty shoot-out. But instead of being scared witless by the process, I asked the players to see it as a wonderful opportunity to bury all the ghosts of the past. And so when Wayne Rooney stepped up to take the first spot-kick, I felt secure and comfortable with what was to come. Naturally, he ballooned it over. 

But Germany missed too. And then Harry Kane scored. So did Mesut Özil. And so it continued. Right up until Leighton Baines smashed his penalty, our fifth, against the crossbar. Up stepped Andre Schürrle, tall, calm and devastatingly German. 

Joe dived the wrong way. He knew it too. He knew it immediately, instinctively pulling back on the dive, falling helplessly to his right as the ball zipped to his left. The German supporters roared in delight and their players ran to the corner of the pitch, jumping and punching the air. It was over. It was all over again. 

“There are some things,” said a soft, familiar voice in my head, “that can never be changed. And England losing to Germany on penalties is one of them.” 

There was an awful pause, a yawning gap opening up as I tumbled into realisation. I sighed and shook my head. Of course. Of course. Of course. How could I be so stupid?

“I never woke up, did I?” I whispered.

I felt a hand on my shoulder and I turned my head. 

“Come on, Bobby.” Karren said softly. 

“I never woke up,” I said again. “I died out there in Doha.”

She reached up and wiped away a tear as it slid down my cheek. 

I watched as my players trudged towards the supporters, saluting them, applauding them. Did any of them really exist? Was it real? This team, those fans, this tournament, this world? Did any of it ever happen at all? 

Nigel looked at me crying and sneered. 

“You big soft twat,” he said. “I’m heading into town to smash up some BMWs. If you want to join me, follow the car alarms.” He stormed off, stopping only to headbutt one of the German coaches.

“Is he real?” I asked Karren. 

“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t even know if I’m real.” 

“What do we do now?” I asked her quietly. 

Karren took my hand and squeezed it. 

“We leap. And we keep on leaping. And we live forever… for whatever forever means.”

I nodded. And I smiled. And I squeezed her hand back. And then we leapt. 

Oh boy.