“I accept that I was never popular at Highbury,” Novak whinged to Ben as they each carried a pint of Chiswick Bitter to a table being vacated.
The ex-footballer had just experienced the modern, world-class Arsenal team, for the first time, in their slick, second-year stadium. Ben Hampton was curious about the affect it would have on him. Novak had stayed away, unintentionally he said, during the Emirates’ inaugural campaign. Those close to him did not know the man as one who dwelt on his years, approaching a decade-and-a-half ago, toiling for the famous North London club during a period of mixed – but mostly negative – reviews. The talks of the last few weeks with Ben, it seems, had unearthed some unresolved and possibly bitter emotions.
“I understand, as well, that I never came close to winning over the majority of supporters.”
Ben Hampton didn’t disagree. He removed his well-worn, black leather jacket. The author’s wife bought his jackets for him now. She preferred Italian designers for her beautiful bald hero. Novak removed his winter scarf and collared cardigan. Ben thought it looked like a ladies sweater and looked twice when they’d met at Novak’s hotel. The Cranley near Gloucester Square.
Ben had said, “Where in the hell did you find this place?” and then began singing, “Who will buy this wond-er-ful morn-ing.”
The two were meeting Rosalie McMahon here at The Dove, the 17th century pub tucked away on a back lane by the riverside and within view of the Hammersmith Bridge. The terrace is a favorite viewpoint for the University boat races. Does anyone who’s been there not love The Dove with its well-kept Fuller’s ales and its Guinness Book of World Records smallest bar, known affectionately as ‘the snug’?
The pub was already rapidly filling, at a quarter to six on a Saturday night in December, beneath its low-ceilinged, dark oak interior. A simple and comfy nook, stiff with history, “The Dove” was how both Novak and Ben answered when Rosalie asked, “Where shall we meet in the Hammersmith area?”
“One might ask,” Novak continued, “could it have been different had I not scored those two howitzers against West Germany at Italia ‘90?”
“Well,” Ben pulled up a chair to the small table. “One howitzer and one sneaky, obscured, early, bouncing, lucky, misdirected offering. I seem to remember from the video your swinging your leg in what you hoped might be howitzer fashion. So it was a potential howitzer, but it never really got out of the gate, did it?”
Ben wasn’t asking the question and finished his analysis with a parting stab. “Good job, as well; it wouldn’t have snaked past the keeper otherwise.”
“Howitzer shells generally emerge from out of gates?” Novak looked surprisingly annoyed. Ben thought the man enjoyed laughing at himself.
The match at the new stadium had ended around four in the afternoon, following a special one o’clock kickoff. The pair had walked, amid the throng (some might say sheep or penguins), from Ashburton Grove to the Arsenal underground and boarded a train headed in the direction of their ultimate destination about thirty minutes away: Hammersmith. They had disembarked at Russell Square for a jaunt through Novak’s old London neighborhood of twelve years, Tavistock Square. Five years ago he had traded in his small London flat, his romantic Thaxted cottage and his mousehole-size Cambridge rooms for a sprawling, 200-year-old, yellow limestone house in the Cotswolds. Now, when in London, he would stay with friends or spring for the best-value, boutique hotel room his assistant could find.
“Oh, fine,” Ben said, checking the door for Rosalie. “I’ve never been in a world cup finals, so I couldn’t possibly comment.”
“Don’t be absurd,’ Novak smiled. “I prefer to be the absurd one, if you don’t mind. And another thing. ‘Snaked’ past the keeper? One well-intentioned yet deceptive bounce and it shot past his ear like a greased rocket.”
“Yes, that’s what I meant. Regardless,” Ben laughed, “assuming your initial moan about being disrespected is true, which is debatable, then we can approach the question of whether or not expectations of your skills were irrationally skewed by the … perhaps uncharacteristic events just prior to your arrival at Highbury. I’ll gladly mine that vein, if you like. If you’re in agreement that a vein can, in fact, be mined.”
“Technically, I suppose. Sounds a bit awkward. I might have used ‘lode.’ But, fair enough. Well, then if not for the misleading ‘heroics,’ might I have merely snuck into North London as an obscure-ish squad player who … worked hard, made himself useful and edged his way into the starting eleven on a … deservedly regular basis?”
“Or … ?” Ben thought Novak was leading up to a contrasting hypothetical of some kind.
“Or … what?”
“I dunno. I thought you were going to ask my opinion about what it was you believe you were, rather than the loyal … terrier blah-blah-blah.”
Novak looked down at his pint, over toward ‘the snug’ (Blimey! That is a small bar) and back up at Ben.
“Was I plainly not good enough?”
“What do you mean, not good enough? You were picked to be in the team consistently for five seasons.”
“By one man who left in disgrace,” Novak said, “and whose name is something of a stone-age joke with the current caretakers and with the press and with a percentage of the old support. Was everyone else right and the one man, who thought I was good enough, wrong?”
“At the time,” Ben admitted, “I must say I believed you were a decent squad player to have, and that you were picked primarily to paint over the cracks caused by injuries, etc. I think the team played, more often than not, with a sense of fear rather than confidence. It hurts me to say, sitting across from you, that you weren’t my idea of a great Arsenal player – like Rocastle or Merson or Thomas or Davis.”
“Or … or … or …” Novak’s injured pride was showing. “I knew that’s what you thought. So the club were too big for me, is that the consensus?”
“Ben, it’s not like I think there should be a bust of me next to Herbert Chapman, or anything, but was I not clanging around the middle of the park for four trophies in five seasons? Why am I picked out as the one player the club could have done without? I was free, after all, don’t forget. And I was paid less than any regular in the side. That’s actually important to some people, so I’m told.”
“I’m quite glad you’re not interviewing me,” Ben laughed. “Because I wouldn’t know which one of your statements to respond to. Just slow down. We didn’t like Hillier either – or a host of others.”
“I was hired by a man and played for a man who cared about winning, not about being popular.”
“There you go again. Fuck’s sake. Yes, four trophies in five seasons, but we were being slaughtered in the domestic league, Julius. The team were unraveling, and I think the cup runs in Europe against Danish part-timers were more of a desperate act -- by an underperforming massive club and its ‘my way or the highway’ manager – than they were anything else.”
“You’re making the argument of that sad, ‘half-empty’ crowd,” Novak said. “And as far as Danish part-timers …”
“Well, that sad, half-empty crowd, sir, were spending their money at least every other Saturday – and some a hell of a lot more than that – to watch their team … Bahhh!”
“I agree.” They both took large pulls on their ale. “Cheers.”
“Yeah, cheers,” Ben said, frustrated that his latest literary endeavor had degenerated to the level of tired pub argument. “Sorry. We were getting at conditions, on the ground, upon your arrival at … the club I’d given my life to for twenty-three years.”
“No apologies necessary. It’s football, after all. It’s the closest we’ll ever come to emotion,” Novak smiled and looked around the pub. No one appeared to be staring at them. “So, like I say, I’d cost the club nothing, having been gloriously snapped up by Georgie Boy on a free, and was paid in relatively similar terms to a reserve, a squad player. In return for this comparatively shabby compensation, to which I put pen to paper, I received certain, shall we say, life-affirming perks.”
Ben Hampton was not previously privy to these details and scooted his chair closer. Novak elaborated.
“These were twofold. First, once I completed training or a match – including any relevant meetings and PT, I was allowed to rush off to university where I was employed, as you know, by one of the esteemed colleges of Cambridge. The club didn’t force me to sit around doing nothing all day like playing Super Mario Brothers or darts, in between personal appearances and other promotional bullshit, and just general time wasting and moving around like a snail with a hangover. I burst in, got on with it and moved on. As you know, you can get from King’s Cross to Cambridge in less than an hour, which is a pretty comfortable commute. I employed a young but quite capable assistant at Selwyn.”
“The very same.” Novak looked surprised and not surprised. “Ginnie sorted my complicated and fluid schedule, ran interference between the appropriate Arsenal staff and the college, and essentially ran my life. The club picked up part of her tab.”
He took another generous swill of his real ale.
“Now, be honest,” Novak continued. “You were never one of those North Bank geezers who used to bellow, “Why don’t you play yer football for Cambridge, ya dozy twat!”
“No. Remember, I’m an old U’s supporter. I have great respect for them.”
“There’s a load off my mind. Anyway, the lifestyle. There were days, literally, when I would have been rolling on the ground in training thinking that Andy Linighan had just broken my leg, and two hours later I’d be at Selwyn lecturing to a group of twenty-year-olds about Günter Grass’ use of Polish-tinged German or about the Balkan languages and prospects of normality for the people of Bosnia. I suppose I had very little of what one might call down time, or, shall I say, what most consider to be conventional down time.”
Ben nodded and tried to picture someone running back and forth between teaching a class and playing professional football. Sort of reminded him of his daydreams when he was unemployed.
“My other perk was just as vital, if more subtle. And that is, the boss, for the most part, shielding the lads, myself included, from the vast London press. His doing so made things slightly more difficult for the hacks to thump you. Even though I felt mild guilt because I know they’re just doing their jobs like anyone, still I would have had no time for press responsibilities because of the involved nature of my competing schedules. But Fleet Street largely never considered the disappearing acts to be my fault. My exits were simply a by-product of Graham’s gag policy. He liked doing all the talking and being in charge of every aspect of the operation. I was never anything but astounded at his self-confidence. Unbelievable.”
“Unbe-bloody-lievable!” Ben laughed.
Novak laughed as well.
“The … uh … upside of such an approach was that he absorbed almost all of the criticism directed at the lads individually and shouldered most of the collective responsibility. He never slagged us off in public, and he was ready to take the blame when things went badly. Of course, he slaughtered us behind closed doors and expected to be praised to the heavens when the club were successful. Even the most hard player was terrified of him.”
“What makes you think I was hard? Mick Harford used to call me ‘Tiffany’ … to my face. And he wouldn’t be smiling,” Novak chuckled. “No, I treated George Graham exactly how I felt about him – grateful. I wasn’t being clever. I was genuinely indebted to the man for bringing me in and having the balls to stick by me. Or the stubbornness. I didn’t care.”
“One vote from Maidenhead for stubbornness,” Ben raised his pint.
“In this way, though, he was a very old-fashioned manager. That was fine by me. I was there to compete and to be fairly compensated for my troubles and my contribution to the … uh … revenue portion of the club’s general ledger. Period. Graham certainly was no scholar, but I think he admired the fact that I put everything into football – when I was meant to do it – and that I applied ferociously my remaining … whatever … into teaching and academics and scholarship, I suppose. I worked very hard – tortured myself at times -- to not short change anyone. You might say I was obsessed in that regard. I learned a few tricks as the years went by, certainly. Whether or not I was successful at fulfilling all of my responsibilities to both sides, well, I have my view and others have theirs.”
Novak paused long enough for Ben to offer an observation.
“Despite of what I may have thought of your talent, it should please you to know there was next to nothing about your enterprise on the pitch, at least, that said to me that you were anything but a full-time committed footballer.”
“That’s all I could ever hope for from critics and from teammates, going back to my first minute as a sub for good ol’ Bergisch-Gladbach in the Regionaliga. And then, back at school, I’d put on the tweed jacket with the elbow patches that Marianne bought for me, and I’d try to prove myself to everyone as the full-time committed PhD candidate and all that.”
“Well, considering you’re being interviewed for a book about your life as a champion footballer, and this week you were in Geneva conducting a research project on … what was it?”
“Cultural Differences in Europe.”
“Oh,” Ben said, his face falling. “Still, I’d … I’d say you fooled them on both fronts. Cheers.”
“Yeah, cheers,” Novak raised his nearly empty pint. “What time is your ‘agent’ supposed to arrive?”
“Our ‘not-so-secret agent’ said she’d be here by 6:30.”
“Oh, I thought six. We’ve a few minutes, then. You’ll find this interesting. Sometime late during my second year at the club, when things had settled down a bit -- meaning, we were out of every competition, and I was beginning to keep my head above water on multiple fronts -- my college held some sort of reception at the Warburg Institute in Woburn Square, near my flat. I was there, gobbling anything the servers brought my way and trading empty champagne flutes for full ones at every opportunity. I’ve only ever been able to enjoy norimaki with sparkles. Otherwise I never have the stuff. Just at parties.”
“I’m to find this interesting … how?” Ben wrinkled his face. “You have to be drunk to eat sushi. I mean, I’m glad we’re mates and all, but …”
“That’s not the interesting part, you twat. Turns out one of the Arsenal board was a Selwyn old boy, which I of course already knew. And he’s there on the other side of one of the Slade School art studios, unfinished wooden palettes on the floor, strange mannequins hanging from the ceiling. And who, or rather whom, does he bring with him from the Marble Halls?”
Ben Hampton screwed his eyes.
“That’s right. The boy from Bargeddie himself. George Graham at a Selwyn College ‘do’ at The University of London School of Advanced Study.”
Novak laughed out loud.
“Right there with me, champagne practically in both hands, and all my lefty acquaintances. I watch him, and then I think, ‘Hey, why not? Did he not used to swing a bit?’ Big sideburns and everything?”
The ex-footballer waited for a visual reaction from the author and most famous Arsenal supporter before continuing.
“Naturally, I work my way over to them. And we’re talking. It’s pleasant and along comes my Master …”
“Your … other Master,” Ben interjected.
“Correct. My other Master. The … uh … academic one. So I introduce him to Graham, and … wait for it … they already know each other.”
“Gobshite!” Ben was suitably stunned. “From where???”
“Who knows? I figure I’ll find out later somehow. More likely I would ask Master (Selwyn Master, I mean) rather than ever bring it up with the boss. It turns out to be nothing too unusual -- something to do with Ginnie having linked them for my personal and professional benefit.”
“Nothing unusual,” Ben wrinkled his nose and shook his head skeptically, “other than a major, first division football manager being on chummy terms with a Cambridge don.”
“Well,” Novak said. “They were both quite charming in person. But before I’m able to comfortably extricate and move on to the next mingling group, the subject turns to … psychology.”
“Of course it did.”
“The Master happened to be a fellow of the psychology department as well and quite renowned. He and Graham begin to discuss the workings of the human mind. Any opinions as to who learned more from the other?”
“Oh, my God.” Ben began to laugh and hold his face.
“And Graham knew me well enough to know that I wouldn’t sell him down the river by gossiping to anyone, so he was pretty comfortable being himself around me. Because he had a definite wall between himself and the players. That was his way, and it worked for him. This was … sixteen years ago.”
“With a healthy shot of poetic license, I could turn that scene into a two-man stage play,” Ben said.
“Be my guest. Apparently, though, my manager had read beyond Vince Lombardi quotations. When the cocktail conversation veered toward, basically, motivation in the workplace, I began to feel a little uncomfortable. So I graciously excused myself and followed a tray of chutney samosas toward two attractive Classics lecturers … or was it the other way round?”
The summer of 1990, Ben had taken a stab at a first draft earlier in the week. The deal between Novak and Arsenal, pushed vigorously by George Graham beginning the day following Wüppertal’s brave, semifinal exit from the European Cup, had been done for weeks before Novak’s Italia ‘90 moments, but Arsenal – as per the player’s request -- hadn’t announced it. Novak’s Wüppertal contract was up, but he wanted the opportunity to meet with the entire board and staff to whom he’d come to think of as family. He was on the radar of several top Bundesliga sides – including Cologne, Frankfurt, Dortmund and Leverkusen, but he had assured Arsenal with a little nod, a little wave, that there was no interest from his end in remaining on the continent.
In spite of their remarkable recent success, Wüppertal were in the beginning stages of a financial meltdown. What existed for seventy-odd years as a small, family-run club had grown too fast, too soon. Now the vultures were circling. They had lit up the West German sky (the club; not the monetary scavengers) like a meteor, burned up and crashed to Westphalia all in a space of about eight years, as it turned out.
Novak had been arranging a job at Cambridge for some time, still undecided as to whether his full-time football career should best be put behind him. He pondered once more the legitimate option of quitting while he was ahead – in football terms. Novak was certainly not ahead on the personal front. Marianne had moved with their baby to Paris. She would, of course, do what was right for Novak and Isabel to have a proper father-daughter relationship. But as for having him back in her life, that was not on under the circumstances.
He’d traveled to England at least a dozen times in the past year setting himself up for a potential teaching job. Novak wanted a change of scenery after ten years in Germany, and, based on the evidence, he still was not willing to hang up his boots just yet. There was the odd matter of having spoken, through representatives, to fellow first division London sides, Crystal Palace and QPR (and even second division Ipswich Town, if another post came his way at the University of East Anglia). What a splash he’d have made out on the fens. Not the sort of strategy employed by a footballer who has decided to retire.
Finally, during the group stage of the World Cup, the Monday following the Americans loss to the host Italians, the club confirmed the few rumors in the press that this obscure, American-born journeyman slogger was indeed headed to North London.
“Big deal, right? Big yawn, more like.”
Novak had grinned then, that day, as interviewer and interviewed sat in the leather chairs of Ben Hampton’s home office the weekend before their Arsenal-Tottenham derby date.
“Not an impact signing like Limpar and Seaman, y’see, just a free pick up. No harm. No excitement. Meanwhile in Italy …”
“You were in form.”
“That would be accurate. Physically and mentally, Ben, there was never a better time for me to be in this particular tournament. Two months before, I’d gone three hours toe-to-toe over two legs with AC Milan – one of the greatest club sides Europe had ever seen. We went out 5-4 on aggregate. If that isn’t coming through the fire, I don’t know what is.”
“Still, though,” Ben nibbled the end of his reading glasses and rubbed his eyebrow like a psychotherapist, “West Germany in the quarterfinals – tall order.”
“If I was confident about anything going in, it was that I was going to glory in this impossible occasion, play hard and intelligently, get seriously about, cause problems for as many of their attackers as I possibly could, try not to be booked, help us keep some kind of shape, attack whenever possible, be a model professional and hopefully inspire my teammates to play the game of their lives so that we could keep it close -- in front of the entire world no less. Otherwise, I thought we were looking at 0-4 at least and a right kicking. But I felt great – ten feet tall.”
“How were your fellow yanks coping?”
“What I tried to stress to the boys in the lead up was that nothing bad can come of this. I seriously doubt they’ll put ten past us. They’ll have no motivation for that. I know these men. Germans actually like Americans. It’s not like we’re English or French or Dutch or Russian. Their goal will be to win comfortably with the minimum effort, no injuries, no suspensions for the semi-finals. They’ve no interest in pummeling us. Not even if we kick them to bits. They’ll expect nothing less of us. In fact, the more we fight, the more they’ll respect us. If we lie down, on the other hand, then they’ll gladly teach us a lesson about what happens to you in this world, at this level, when you don’t compete like a professional (which the majority of us weren’t). If we wuss out and play scared, then we’ll only succeed in making them look daft as well. Now they’ll really hammer us for helping turn the match into a farce. They want a contest; let’s give them one.”
“You didn’t happen to say, ‘Once more, unto the breach, dear friends, once more, or close the wall up with our American dead?’”
Ben somehow suppressed a smile. Novak opted not to participate in the novelist’s cheeky attempt at pantomime.
“Why don’t you just shout, ‘Look behind you!’” Novak smirked.
They stared at each other, straight-faced as Novak continued down via memoria.
“I spent a great deal of time going over each German player individually. I hoped to demystify them for my teammates. I painted a picture of each German on his worst day – with his shorts down, if you will -- so that what my teammates would see when they walked out on the pitch were, hopefully, opponents in their most vulnerable state. I tried to sell the lads on the idea that we would be facing eleven soft, overpaid primadonnas.”
“You mean, rather than the clinical, battle-tested killing machine that they were in reality.”
“They had to listen to me,” Novak nodded. “The only thing those college boys and various professional castoffs knew about European football was that I had been playing it for the last eight years – six of those at the highest level. I’d seen just about everything you could see and won some important medals. You know I’m not boasting. This is the way it was. With me, they had a big, strong, brave, smart and eminently experienced teammate who would fight for them and give them half a chance. It was like they came downstairs on Christmas morning and there I was under the tree.”
“What would it sound like, exactly, if you were actually to boast?” Ben cut in.
Novak had become adept at ignoring the author.
“In retrospect, those two goals – my only international goals ever – cost me personally more than they ever helped me or more than they, in reality, helped the team I scored them for. We did lose the match – a match we were never going to win.”
“So your shock, watershed moment, or moments, early in the second half of that match?”
“Yes. The English press presumed I was going to be some creative, goal-every-other-game midfield general. And, as you know, that wasn’t me at all. Never was; never would be.”
“Can you blame anyone, really?” Ben asked, keeping the tape recorder going. “I mean, it’s a legitimate conclusion to come to as well as a legitimate story to pursue. You looked a bright player to begin with, and then you put two past the eventual champions. And we were playing them next. So, from our point of view, you’d performed a great national service by quite possibly softening up our old enemy. What else were we to think? You’d played like a hero, and now you were coming to Arsenal to be one of our heroes.”
“Oh, I get it,” Novak stood and pawed a book on Ben’s shelf. “Believe me. But they could have done a bit of research and realized that it was all a one-off.”
“Why would it have to be a one-off?” Ben sat up straight. “Perhaps you were just coming of age, as far as we knew. And, besides, you know, that’s not a very meaty headline – Don’t Get Yer Hopes Up. He’ll Never Do It Again!”
“How about ‘Novak Stars in One-Act Folly’?” Novak deadpanned as he continued to browse Ben’s collection of literary anthologies.
“Back to Italia ‘90 for a second, if I can put my journalist hat on. From what I gather, then, you’d planned on three matches, do your best, have a few plates of carpaccio, be eliminated and have all your belongings moved to England. In and out in a fortnight – not counting the build up. Was it at least enjoyable? Looked enjoyable, watchin’ the telly.”
“It wasn’t, not for me,” Novak sighed. “Very stressful. I was lasered-in on helping prevent our side from being humiliated every time out. I wasn’t used to being humiliated, and I damned sure wasn’t about to start on every television on earth. After I got to know the parties involved, I felt it was all on my shoulders, and, you know, once I sign on to something I go pretty much full bore.”
Marianne Papineau might disagree, the novelist thought.
“The concentration and the mental focus and the physical effort and the psychological strain and the required adrenalin were extraordinary because of the caliber of opponents and the occasion. Over the course it grew overwhelming. I took a lot of Anacin-3. I was so comprehensively exhausted in the end that I nearly called off the Arsenal deal and considered never playing again.”
The novice biographer hoped his eyebrows were in their proper place.
“Remember, I suffered my own little ‘Gazza’s Tears’ breakdown lying on the pitch at the end of time when we were unable to equalize against the Germans. I couldn’t catch my breath, and I felt like I was going over the falls or something, and I realized I was choking and heaving and … kind of crying.”
“Because you’d lost or …?” Ben knew why but wasn’t going to say.
“Because my entire body was in shock and my brain was on tilt. And I just kinda lost it. It had absolutely nothing to do with national pride.”
Nor would Gascoigne’s little fit in a few days’ time, Ben recalled. Will he blame it on football or actually look at what any idiot could see?
“Nothing to do with competitive fire or not advancing and everything to do with shot nerves, blown fuses. I almost checked myself into a hospital, because I had debilitating headaches and nausea and terrible cramps in my neck and shoulders for a week. Some friends took me to Spain, and I thought I was going to die.”
“God,” Ben recoiled.
“George Graham somehow tracked me down, via phone, lying around a pool outside of Benicassim. He got all rational and explained that I should just relax and recuperate and reminded me not to worry because Arsenal had much better players to play alongside me than the USA had.”
“Thank you, Captain Obvious.”
“And I could just sort of do my thing like I’d done the past few years at Wüppertal.”
“You understood him on the blower?” Ben asked, knowing he would not get an answer. “I always have to look a Scot in the face to suss what he’s tryin’ to say.”
“I went into this panic about moving away from what had become my home in Cologne,” Novak went to the window and gazed out onto Ben’s property. “Marianne and Isabel were gone; I’d fucked that up.”
‘Yes, you had.’ Ben’s thoughts attempted a kick up Novak’s backside.
“I had to start work at Cambridge. I was scared about that. I had to think about pre-season training with a big club in the spotlight? Are you kidding me? I have to quit something. I have to quit big-time football. Absolutely. I can play in a pub league.”
“I’d gone a bit crazy. It was still several days before I’d changed my mind about retiring. Graham said “dee noothin’” for two weeks. But then I’d be miles behind the other lads. What was I going to do, sit on the bench or be in the reserves? Never. I was only it for the competition. I’d already proven I could do it. There really wasn’t anything left to do. Except … play for George Graham. Play for the Arsenal. Play against Gascoigne and Liverpool and Man United in front of you crazy, passionate, singing supporters. Get back to the European Cup and try to win it. I’ve often wondered whether I should have done – quit, that is. Mostly I think, yes, I should have quit after Wüppertal and never played in England. Does that shock you?”
“I should have gone to Paris and taught somewhere or just gotten any kind of work I could find. Bartender, dogcatcher, who the fuck cares? My immediate future with Marianne and our baby should have trumped everything. Why didn’t it? Why did I turn my back on a woman and a child?”
Fucking bingo, yer bleedin’ donkey! Ben looked at him. Not a question he could answer sitting there. But the author began, at some point during that day at his home office in Maidenhead, to think about what would cause a person to make the choices that Julius Novak made that summer. Ben Hampton began to consider and suspect that the answers would be much more interesting to write about and read about than whether or not Arsenal were a better side with Novak anchoring the midfield or with four world-class attackers swarming around the opponents’ third of the park.
What kind of woman is it the mention and memory of whom would still leave a man, who seemingly has everything he strove for, stammering with regret twenty years later? Does the solution to such a puzzle, Ben wondered, teach us more about humanity than understanding why Arsenal failed to win the double in 1991?
It was now 6:45 at the pub in Hammersmith and still no Rosalie.
“That last season we were shit,” Novak said. “It was an embarrassment. We still had many great players, but a few -- just enough -- had tanked it; and we no longer, as a unit, had that same old edge.”
“At least we weren’t relegated,” Ben smiled.
“The boss was distracted, to say the least,” Novak settled back into a chair. “I didn’t know the details, and I didn’t mind to the gossip. I felt loyalty to him for sticking by me and helping me stay in the side for so many seasons, when, frankly, I suppose the overwhelming sentiment was for myself and players like me to be put aside for perhaps glorious imports with a little more flair and personality.”
“You were an import,” Ben continued to feel that humor was called for. “And talk about personality.” Once again, however, Novak treated him more like an audience than a pub mate.
“Of course George wanted fantastic players – on one hand. On the other hand, he liked loyal players who worked hard for the team. Were ‘the suits,’ as he called the trustees, reluctant to give him funds because they didn’t trust him with it? One could make a case for that, considering how everything worked itself out. I tend to think he was naive as opposed to criminal. Coaches should coach; and businessmen should handle the money. You’re just asking for trouble otherwise.”
“But don’t tell me you ever bought the whole ‘everybody else does it’ line,” Ben stated firmly. “‘Everybody’s a hypocrite, and I’m being hung out to dry.’ That’s morally irresponsible.”
“Easy for two old geezers to sit here with our Fuller’s and say.”
“Erm … empty Fuller’s,” Ben held up his pint glass, archaeology of foam clinging to the inside.
The Dove was near capacity.
“I wasn’t born yesterday, Ben. I always understood the punters’ point of view. You would have liked the manager to have bought a star. And instead he goes and signs me. The fact is, the board had a wage structure, and the manager agreed with that wage structure – whether he denies it, after the fact, or not. George will say that his hands were tied, but a big part of him wanted to win the league and Europe without the highly-paid superstars. He would say that anybody could win the league if you open the vault. But if you’re a club with an egalitarian approach to paying its players, so that no one makes much more than anyone else, then winning it all is that much sweeter. And if you have the ego that George had, and if you had that Scottish chip on your shoulder that George had, then you want to prove that you can do more with less.”
“For a while it worked a treat.” Ben said, nostalgically. “He quickly built on what he inherited and started winning.”
“And the team looked good doing it. I was in London several times in the late eighties, laying the groundwork for moving here. I watched them, and I very much liked what I saw. I knew that if I were going to continue playing after my time with Wüppertal was through, and if I were going to live and eventually teach in England, then Arsenal were the only club I would even consider playing for. Well, that’s not exactly true. I suppose if any London side, or somewhere roughly between London and Cambridge, had plumped for me, then I would have given it a try.”
“What, Spurs?” Ben asked, incredulously.
“Do you have a problem with Spurs?” Novak raised an eyebrow.
“A few extra tube stops. Bit inconvenient, like.”
“Do you ever think what you’re life would’ve been like had you’re Dad taken you to White Hart Lane?”
“I’ve never allowed myself to.”
The two men, inextricably linked to all things Gunner, had a nice tee-hee over that.
“No, Arsenal were always the perfect fit for a host of reasons,” Novak said, back once again to his rigmarole. “And they were certainly my first choice – mostly down to my ambition.”
“So you’ve finally admitted it!” Ben raised his voice and looked deeply at him. “Your Marianne would want this on tape rather than match day Saturday hearsay with pubs and pints. Ambition, was it?”
“I want my lawyer,” Novak pretended to stand up. “Where in the world is Rosalie? It’s after seven.”
“I don’t think she’s a lawyer,” Ben said. “That’d be a 50-50 prospect for a client, wouldn’t it?”
“Should we call her?”
“No need,” Ben said, waving toward the front door. “There she is, the person to blame for all this.”
Big, two-handed wave and a smile from Rosalie, as she untwisted her purse handle from amid the folds of her wool cape.
“Hellooo, both of you,” she squealed, over the throng. She was out of breath and searching her purse for her albuterol mist. “Forgive me for … Oh, sorry! I’m terribly sorry. Are you all right?”
She had bumped her backside against a chair, rattling the glasses on a table between Ben and Novak’s table and the crowd standing around the snug.
“How was the big match?”
“It was quite big and super,” Novak looked over at Ben and stood for a double-cheek kiss and a hug.
“Julius, great to see you.”
“Ben, marvelous. Thanks for coming. Oh, I’m so excited. Look at the two of you here, a couple of guys having a post-match pint. This is actually rather sexy.”
“That’s gratifying,” Ben said, holding her chair for her. “When you walked in the door, I said, “There’s Rosalie. Julius, do try and look sexy for a change.”
They all laughed. This was weird.
“I’m off to the bar,” Ben stayed on his feet. “What would you like, Rosalie?”
“Mmm …” she scanned the cask hand pumps through the crowd. “Pint of Discovery, please.”
“One Discovery. Very nice. Another Chiswick there, Pelé?”
Ben nodded and headed for the snug.
“So, what were you two talking about?” Rosalie put her cape and scarf on the back of her chair and her purse under the table.
“I’m afraid he won’t stop with the football questions.”
“Relentless, is he? That’s good,” she said. “I don’t think the average person realizes what a hard worker he is. Ben has always exuded, at least publicly, quite a relaxed attitude about things.”
“I would have to say that’s genuine. And as far as our work together these past couple of weeks, he’s been the epitome of patience,” Novak said. “I must be boring him to tears.”
“No. You know he oozes football as much as anyone,” she said. “And your story is fascinating.”
“I don’t know about fascinating, frankly.” Novak smiled as he looked around the pub. No wonder Graham Greene liked it here. “Still, anytime you interview someone, you have to shovel a lot of muck before you find any … you know …”
“Pearls?” Rosalie offered with a flash of her arresting smile. “Sugar beets?”
“More like corpses,” Ben popped his head in with a pint in each hand.
That was fast, considering the swell of West Londoners. The bartender must have recognized him and stopped everything.
“One blonde for the redhead and one extra special for the bitter bastard.”
He set their pints in front of them and popped back for his own.
“Seriously, how are you feeling about the prospect of a book now that it’s actually in front of you and not just an abstract notion?” she asked.
“I’m not thinking that far ahead. I’m just following Ben’s lead and, I guess, placing my trust in his instincts and his skill. Given his track record, I’d say he’s earned at least that.”
Ben Hampton rejoined them.
“Has there been a decision as to dinner?” the author asked. “I’ll need to call my wife.”
“Peter’s gotten us in at Vine Leaves Taverna for around 8 o’clock,” Rosalie said. “He’s bringing another couple, friends of ours, Ali and Melanie. Peter and Alistair sit together at the football matches. The restaurant’s just round the corner from Ali and Mel’s house. I assume the boys have been, like yourselves, to at least one pub.”
“That’s why God invented them,” Ben said.
“Vine Leaves Taverna?” Novak asked. “Is that near QPR by any chance?”
“Peter said Uxbridge Road, if that helps. I always think of it as nearer to Shepherd’s Bush Green, but I’m quite hopeless with directions,” she said.
“I haven’t been there for ages,” Novak beamed. “My God. It must be … fifteen years. Ginnie and I … my, you know, grad assistant from university, popped in after a match at Loftus Road. She knew the place and raved that we had to eat there.”
“What season was that?” Ben asked.
“What?” Novak said.
“You said fifteen years ago. 92? 93? What?”
Rosalie looked back and forth at them, thoroughly pleased, thinking, ‘My boys.’
“Let’s see,” Novak rubbed his chin. “It was nice out. So, spring. I was fucking exhausted, but thrilled about something … ah, we’d just polished off Paris St. Germaine and were preparing for Parma in the … uh …”
“1-1. Merson,” Ben said, robotically.
“… Cup Winner’s Cup Final in Copen ... Excuse me?”
“1994. April. 1-1. Merson scored. At Loftus Road. The match you’d just played … before you went to the Greek restaurant.”
“I’ll defer to you on that one,” Novak raised his glass to Ben.
“Peter used to love going to QPR to see Arsenal,” Rosalie said. “What, five minutes away on the tube? Or just walk. It was like he’d died and gone to heaven.”
“The School End,” Ben said. “The home supporters used to rain all manner of debris on us from above. Good job you weren’t there in the 80s, Julius; they had a fucking false turf. It was abominable.”
“Well if the taverna is anything like I remember, then we’re in for a treat,” Novak said. “Endless meze, eh, Rosalie?”
“Oh, yes. They just keep bringing it and bringing it. Twenty-something different dishes,” she smiled. “And they’re so nice. Like I say, five minutes on the tube … or the one of us with the largest income can spring for a cab.”
Ben Hampton and Julius Novak pointed to one another. “That would be him,” Ben said.
“Oh, give me a break,” Novak shook his head. “I hardly have two nickels to rub together, Mr. Talk Show.”
“Bollocks,” Ben said, then to Rosalie. “Have you seen his house?”
“He didn’t invite me, but I heard stories from the locals.”
“I …” Novak began.
“Don’t worry about it, darling,” Rosalie touched his hand. “Peter was practically wetting himself just sitting with you in the pub. I imagine he would have fainted dead away if he’d actually entered your home.”
They all laughed.
“So, Rosalie,” Ben said. “Do you have any business matters we need to go over at all before we meet up with the others and go all social?”
“Yes,” she said. “Hurry up and write the book. Soon I’ll have three children at university and Peter hints at retiring.”
“I hear you met with Dava,” Ben said to Rosalie, apprehensively.
“Yes. You could have told me what an absolute doll that woman is.”
“Who’s Dava?” Novak asked.
“Shit,” Novak blurted. Ben and Rosalie looked at him. “Did I say that out loud?”
“She loves you to pieces, Ben. But never mind that for now. How goes the great saga?”
Ben was mildly confused by Rosalie’s lack of disclosure but decided to answer her question anyway and ring her up first thing Monday morning.
“We’ve made decent progress. We’re up to the part where the Russian army invaded Julius’ grandmother’s village in 1914.”
Rosalie stared at him. “Seriously?”
“Yeah,” Novak said. “My great-grandmother thought the soldiers wanted to rape all the girls, but really they just wanted a couple of pigs and some directions.”
“We should go,” Rosalie said. “There’s a group staring at our table and salivating.”
The three gathered their coats and headed off toward the tube. They decided to walk to the Hammersmith stop rather than the more nearby Ravenscourt Park, so they wouldn’t have to change trains. Holiday decorations hung all along the walk toward the bridge on a night that was rather mild for December. Lights shimmered on the Thames.
“Jonathan James and I do have one little question for the two of you regarding content and publicity,” Rosalie said, as she linked arms with the two men on the uneven brick path. Misadventure and her mates.
Ben looked nervously toward Novak. He was uneasy about his budding interest in the Marianne angle.
“Do you think you’ll be getting into the whole, ‘Osama bin Laden’s an Arsenal fan’ thing?”