Owen Coyle stands at the door with the fingers of one nervous hand clasping an invitation. ‘Join us’ reads the cryptic exhortation, which the redundant Scotsman is want to do. Since he lost his job he feels the need to join something – anything – to give direction to his bones and blood, steeped as they are in football’s ceaseless momentum.
He finds himself he knows not where, and suspects the cab driver knows more than he was letting on, driving away from Coyle before accepting a fare. The address alone was enough to physically perturb the driver. Perhaps he has seen what awaits inside this…what is it? Too gothic to be a house, too small to be a castle, too civilised to be a dungeon. It stands like a torn hole in the very fabric of the world, and Coyle fears what lies beyond the gouge.
A butler opens the front door, and wordlessly ushers Coyle inside. He is swept down a corridor illuminated by candles, whose flames flicker against the images that adorn the walls – old Premiership league tables, mostly incomplete. Watford in the Premier League in 2006, Hull City challenging for Europe in September 2008. Each one is more haunting than the last, still-born babies of sporting near-achievements. Where is he?
The butler pushes open a door adorned with a wooden plaque, bearing the legend “The League of Ex-Extraordinary Gentlemen’. Coyle follows the shrugged direction of the man’s sympathetic gaze. A familiar, floating voice greets him.
“Welcome, Owen. It’s good to see you.” A swivel chair turns on its axis, and the tanned physiognomy of Phil Brown peers over, like a cartoon face doodled on an old leather satchel. “Please. Sit down.”
Coyle obeys, as he wonders whether this is happening as it should be. Brown rises to his feet, and addresses the faceless associates sat beside him as he stalks the room.
“You must be wondering why we summoned you. It’s simple – you are one of us. This is where you need to be. You need to be with us now.”
“Who are you people?” asks Coyle
“We’re the good guys, Owen” says the rotating head of Aidy Boothroyd. He, too, rises from his seat, and continues to speak: “We were once like you. You were once like you. Young, confident, the next big thing in football management. Remember when you were linked with the Arsenal job?”
At this Brown chuckles, the reflective surface of his rictus grin failing to shed light on his anonymous colleagues, who join in the laughter. Coyle protests: “Hey, that’s not -”
Another voice, another man. Another person who was once like Coyle. It is the never less than unwelcome face of Gary Megson.
“We’re on your side here. That could’ve been us,” Megson’s face lowers to Coyle’s, in tandem with his whispered voice, “Guess what? It was…”
“That’s right,” says Boothroyd, “When I took Watford to the Premiership, people said I would manage England one day. Then what happened? Relegation. Coventry City. Bloody Colchester United. And in between, coming here and filling the fucking vending machines!”
Boothroyd’s head bows solemnly as he finds himself hollow, his soul now expunged of its burden. Megson and Brown look at each other, concerned for their friend. They then turn to Coyle, implying that it is his time to speak.
“Come on now Aidy. You’re at Northampton Town now, you – “
“Aaaah, give over!” he says, rage animating a tear-streaked face. “Northampton! That’s so far away from England I might as well be in bloody China. They wear a purple kit for God’s sake. Purple!”
“A job’s a job, Aidy.” Coyle says. A silence smothers the room, and he is instantly filled with regret; how he desperately longed for five seconds ago. Boothroyd approaches, and for a moment Coyle wonders if he might die at this man’s hands. Instead, they jab towards the room’s dark corner.
“A job. A job?! Ask him if he’d like a job!”
Coyle looks over at a hunched figure, cloaked in shadows. Megson reveals him with the light of a flaming torch. Clattering around in shackles is the bedraggled, unkempt mess of what used to be a man, a proud man. The monster is Alan Curbishley.
Coyle is braced by shock’s sudden freeze. “No?! NO!”
“Yes. It is him.” says Megson.
“But he took unfancied family club Charlton Athletic to within three points of European football. He shouldn’t be here. Let him go! He’s done nothing wrong!”
“HE KNOWS WHAT HE’S DONE WRONG!” Boothroyd screams, and his cohorts bow their heads in morose agreement. Coyle catches the feral eyes of Curbishley as the light retreats, and he once again disappears from view. This terrifying glimpse of a possible future seizes Coyle, and the man panics.
“I don’t belong here! I took Burnley on a famous league cup run! We beat Manchester United! I’m not one of you!”
Brown shakes his head sadly. “Everyone thinks that. Do you think I would’ve sung Sloop John B in front of the Hull supporters if I ever felt I’d end up here? Even then I was on the list, just like you were on the list the minute you went to Bolton.”
Coyle’s next question is answered before it even escapes his lips. Megson and his torch light another section of the room. The list – a vast blackboard that bears the scrawled names of hundreds of managerial casualties, dating back decades. Names flash before him, and he absorbs random details in an instant, like a body thrown from a crashed car. John Gregory, David O’Leary, Gareth Southgate, Roy Keane, Tony Adams, John Barnes, Steve McClaren, Paul Jewell, Mark Hughes. All of them to a man once extinguished like sputtering flames, in this mausoleum to hundreds of once promising futures.
Boothroyd picks up some chalk and brandishes it in Coyle’s face. “In fact, we have some new names to add, don’t we lads?”
Megson and Brown murmur in agreement. A low, subdued grunt from Curbishley also assents, as Boothroyd takes to the board, and striates the identities of tomorrow’s possible victims. Martin O’Neill. Paul Lambert. Lee Clark. Coyle begins to weep and Boothroyd cackles.
“Does this upset you, Coyle? Well pace yourself, we’ve got another name to add.” He returns to the board and marks another – Alan Pardew. This is too much for Coyle to take. “No! NOOO! ENOUGH! THAT IS ENOUGH! YOU LEAVE HIM BE! HE’S DOING FINE WORK! HE’S SIGNED AN EIGHT-YEAR CONTRACT!”
Boothroyd strikes him with an open fist, and once again silences the room. “I don’t care! We don’t care! Just imagine the big fat pay off from Mike Ashley. Once Pardew’s fired we’ll be able to get a pool table in. Don’t you understand? This is your future now. It doesn’t matter where you go next. You will always belong here. You might leave this place tonight, but it will never leave you. This is what it is to be a manager these days, unless you’re an old man like Ferguson or Wenger. Embrace the change. Embrace us!”
Coyle’s eyes switch between the faces of Boothroyd, Brown, Megson and Curbishley. Each one appears to be mouthing something, but the tears distort his view, shaping them as if in a grotesque hall of mirrors, and Coyle realises that he can no longer see these men. He can no longer see anything.
A phone rings, and moments later the butler enters the room.
“Mr Coyle, it’s the BBC. They wonder if you want to appear as a pundit for Match of the Day 2 with Colin Murray next week?”
The monster in the corner laughs, before being swallowed by shadow once more.