February 7, 2012
Have you read?
Part One: Bridge Over Troubled Waters
Part Two: Going To The Source
Part Three: A Dish Served Cold
Part Four: Tevez Under Wraps
Part Five: One Hump Or Two?
Part Six: The Best Laid Plans Of Mice And Man City
The entire plan seemed to be unraveling before his eyes. The door had just been slammed shut behind him, and Bridgey was facing a nightmare in a tiny office somewhere in the depths of Sheikh Mansour’s ‘summer’ palace in Qatar. Desperately, he tried to sort the jumbled ball of emotions bouncing around in his mind and regain control of himself.
First, he had been in the training facility with the rest of the Exiles. Sparky was running them through their paces one last time, ahead of the so-called friendly with Mancini and City. They were still ragged, and no wonder; half of them hadn’t seen action in months, and none of them had practiced together under Hughes’ guidance for two years. If the rust wasn’t enough, the entire group was listening to instruction from George and Brad, who were in charge of the real job they were here to do, codenamed The Qatari Job. Tiny, nearly invisible earbuds were receiving wireless communication from the American actors, who were posing as activists for Amnesty International, the benefactors of the charity match about to take place.
In that guise, they were guests of Mansour. In reality, it was their intent to relive one of their most famous movie capers in real life, lifting the UAE royal of a hefty portion of his fortune, and his official Chairman’s FA Cup replica in the bargain. The duo had been contracted by Bridgey to plan the heist. He and Carlos Tevez had recruited the rest of the rejects whom Khaldoon Al Mubarak and Roberto Mancini had cast aside with such callous indifference.
Outside the training facility, one of the portable stadiums tirelessly promoted and endlessly discussed during the successful Qatari bid for the 2022 World Cup, had gone up in less than three days. Much to Bridgey’s amazement, the other Exiles, and the rest of the world, in fact, it looked as solid as the new Wembley Stadium, and, in its own unique style, easily as beautiful. Whereas most modern stadia were massive bowls, despite containing rectangular pitches, the Qatari design followed the shape of the playing surface, albeit more rounded at the corners. It rose high and straight, rather than inclining outward, combining the columnar style of ancient Roman architecture with the sweeping curves of desert sand dunes. The entire façade was wrapped in ribbons, coloured to represent all the flags of the various Arab nations.
It was spectacular, in turn demanding a spectacular match for the 40,000 roaring fans who now occupied it. The Exiles planned to do their part and more. Then, with less than half an hour until kickoff, an emissary had come from the palace and summoned Bridgey. Sparky, Carlos and the rest had protested vehemently. When the messenger insisted, the entire side had to pry Bellamy from his screaming, huddled body. The diminutive Welshman had gone absolutely berserk in the blink of an eye, startling everyone, especially the poor servant. Thankfully, Sparky had taken temporarily custody of Bellamy’s golf clubs for the duration of training.
While the training staff made sure the fellow was none the worse for wear, Brad came over Bridgey’s earpiece, telling him to go with the messenger. He reassured Bridgey that he and George were prepared for this contingency. It would be safe, they said, so long as he removed the earpiece and microphone pinned inside his collar, in case he was searched. Other than that, everything was in hand, nothing to worry about. If Bridgey had known what, or more appropriately, who was waiting for him in the palace, he’d have done more than worry. He’d have soiled his pants.
Still, he had followed the visibly unnerved palace errand boy, who continually looked over his shoulder with wide eyes, less, it seemed to Bridgey, to check that he was following than to be certain he wasn’t about to leap on his back like a wild animal. Finally, the frightened man opened a tall set of double doors and Bridgey found himself stepping back into the immense room containing the Sheikh’s prized Cup.
The trophy still held a central place in the massive hall, posited under a domed skylight. At the far end of the room, the Sheikh was being served breakfast in the company of a woman, and Khaldoon Al Mubarak. As he walked past the trophy, his steps echoing on the polished marble floor, Bridgey marveled at the detail of its gleaming silver surface. For all he knew, it was the original, but that was supposedly in hallowed Wembley, in the FA’s possession, and only trotted out on special occasions.
Leaving the replica behind, he focused on the Sheikh’s companion. One shake of her rich brown tresses brought him to a complete halt. “Vanessa?” His breath left him as he uttered her name, and he thought it would never come back.
At the sound of his voice, the Frenchwoman looked up. Her eyes were as deep and brown as they had ever been. Under the table, her hand sought Mansour’s wrist. With that one motion any hope he had withered and burned. His heart hardened and he turned his gaze from her to the Sheikh, unaware of the momentary look of sadness in her eyes. A look that was quickly suppressed.
“Why am I here?” Bridgey asked, his voice all steel.
The Sheikh looked up at him momentarily, patted his lips with his napkin, then looked back down, resuming his meal. Bridgey’s mouth formed a syllable but before he could give sound to it, Mubarak spoke.
“You have been lent out to Sunderland FC for the remainder of the season,” he said. “Your agent has agreed terms with the club. You will pack immediately.”
“No!” Bridgey refused. “I am playing this match. You have kept me off the pitch for two years; you will not deny me today!”
Mubarak laughed. Waving his hand in dismissal, he said, “You will have all the matches you wish with the Irishman, O’Neill, in the Stadium of Light. For two years, you have rejected every opportunity we gave you to move on –”
“With struggling clubs in foreign leagues or the Championship?” It was Bridgey’s turn to laugh in disgust. “Please.”
Mubarak shrugged. “You cannot blame us if they were the only ones willing to pay ₤90,000 per week for a panty-waist coward.” The City president’s gaze darted to Vanessa and past her to the Sheikh, realising that he may have inadvertently offended them, but neither acknowledged his remark.
Bridgey, though, curled his fists and took a purposeful step forward.
“That,” Mubarak advised with a wicked smile, “would be ill-advised.”
He gestured behind Bridgey with his butter knife, where the sound of shuffling feet reached the footballer’s ears. Two very large men, muscular chests and arms making every effort to escape from their suits, stood at either of his shoulders. He hadn’t heard them come in.
Mubarak continued. “Since you don’t seem willing to cooperate, your things will be collected for you. These men will escort you to a safe place until they arrive, and then you will be driven to the airport. That is all. Leave us.”
The last two sentences were directed more towards Bridgey’s new minders, who wordlessly picked up the still protesting Englishman and, turning, carried him by the arms, feet pedaling uselessly a foot from the floor, across the long room, through the doors and down the outer hall.
As they did, the Sheikh put down his silverware, lightly dabbed at his face once more, then rose and held out a hand to his companion. “Shall we, my dear? The match awaits.”
Smiling she took his hand, standing to join him. Mansour looked sternly at Mubarak. “Your words did not go unnoticed, Khaldoon. I am displeased. We will discuss it later.”
Mubarak bowed respectfully and cursed himself.
In another part of the palace, Bridgey was cursing everyone in sight. None of those he passed even glanced in his direction, however, obviously aware of the identity of his escort. Finally, they deposited him in front of a nondescript door, opened it and shoved him inside. Then they turned, arms crossed, and stood guard.
Unprepared to suddenly be back in possession of his own motor control, Bridgey sprawled onto the floor. Picking himself up and dusting off, he suddenly realised that he wasn’t alone. There was another man in the room, leaning against a small bureau against the far wall. Bridgey looked into a pair of dark, nearly black eyes, housed under arching eyebrows and a shaved pate and over a sneering grin and menacingly trimmed van dyke. The man was holding an emery board, apparently having been disturbed while trimming his nails. Nigel de Jong was the last man Bridgey wished to disturb at any time.
Bridgey backed up towards the door, and reaching behind him, tested the knob. It was locked. De Jong laughed quietly. Tucking away the emery board, he pushed away from the desk and punched a fist into the other hand. “Might as well get on with it,” he said.
Bridgey was trapped. The door was locked, there didn’t appear to be another exit, and Nigel Freaking De Jong was about to beat him to a bloody pulp. He couldn’t see a way out; it had all come to naught. Well, if this was it, he wasn’t going to take it as meekly as he had taken everything over the last two years. He wasn’t going to swallow it like he had Vanessa and JT’s betrayal, his place on the England squad, or his treatment at City. This time, he was going to go down fighting.
Summoning every bit of courage in his body, he screamed like a banshee, and launched himself at De Jong.
The match went on without Bridgey. Surprisingly, it went very well in the early going for the Exiles. They were incensed that one of their own had been ripped away from them, viewing it as just another example of their former club’s cruelty, and their emotions put them in the ascendancy.
Bellamy was a man possessed, although that was not all that unusual. Yet he had an equal partner in Carlos Tevez. The Argentine, who had stewed in the Buenos Aires heat while his City mates toiled through the English winter, unleashed six months of pent-up anger and frustration. Combining with the Welshman, he had pegged the Exiles to a two-goal lead in the first half-hour.
Yet, City gave as good as they got. By half-time they had hit back to halve the deficit. A rather confused Mario Balotelli, who seemingly couldn’t suss out why everyone on the pitch was exhibiting nastier attitudes than him, managed to be standing at just the right place in the box for a David Silva set-piece to carom off his hind-quarters and bounce past a confused Shay Given.
If 2-1 score wasn’t sufficient entertainment for the excited crowd, all hell broke loose as the teams headed into the clubhouse. Vincent Kompany said something to Bellamy, who offered a snappy retort. A laugh from the Belgian had the pair nose to chest, Bellamy not having the stature to reach higher. Yet it was Wright-Phillips, coming out of nowhere, who set off the fuse. Pulling his mate out of the way, he shoved Kompany in the chest, with the far larger defender responding in kind. Suddenly the two were rolling around on the turf.
When the donnybrook was finally subdued, mutual red cards were issued to the combatants, and Bellamy was shown a yellow. The tattooed scrapper didn’t seem to mind, as he was laughing and hugging a still furious SWP, merrily dragging him into the tunnel.
Inside the dressing room, Wright-Phillips anger suddenly transformed into pure joy. High-fiving Bellamy, he shouted, “Howzat fer acting, mate?”
“I love it, I love it, but let’s keep our minds on the job, eh?” the Welshman smiled back. “It’s all coming together.” Stripping off his kit and throwing it into a nearby hamper, he stamped on the floor three times. There was a ripping sound, as carpet squares separated, then Jô’s head and shoulders appeared.
The Brazilian, formerly a City forward and now Mansour’s chief eunuch, climbed out of the hidden tunnel. He had a bundle of silks in his hand. “You lads ready?”
The pair nodded.
“Excellent,” Jô answered. “Get these on, then.” He tossed the multi-coloured fabrics towards the two diminutive players.
The pair held up the clothing. “They’re dresses! What’s this, then? You don’t expect us to wear these, do you?”
Jô laughed. “Of course I do. How else do you expect to get through the palace undetected?”
Bellamy and SWP looked over the dresses dubiously.
“Come on, we don’t have all day!”
“These are a bit more revealing than what the women in the street wear,” Wright-Phillips said doubtfully.
“It’s good to be the Sheikh,” Jô explained with a chuckle. “Don’t worry, the Haj will cover your faces.”
“A lot more will have to be covered up before anyone believes Bellamy’s a bird,” Wright-Philips jibed, getting a poke in the ribs from the Welshman for his effort.
Sparky walked over and barked out, “Quit dawdling, you two, and get to it. Time’s wasting.” The pair nodded and quickly did as ordered. The gaffer turned to Tevez. “You’ll have ten minutes or so, before you get yourself sent off. You’ve done great so far, but leave everything you’ve got on the pitch, yeah?”
“Right,” Sparky rose his voice to include the rest of the squad, while Jô, Bellamy and SWP slipped into the tunnel. “Everyone else’s job is to go out there and play the match of your life. Make sure everyone’s eyes are on you, and don’t give them a moment to wonder where the others have gone!”
A loud enthusiastic shout went up from the remaining players, and Carlos slipped the armband back on, and led them out onto the pitch for the second half. As they headed out, Hughes let it be known to the press liaison that he’d decided not to risk using Bellamy in the second half, with the circumstances surrounding his caution meaning the match official wasn’t likely to tolerate any further unruliness. The man didn’t even blink as the Welsh-born coach shoveled on the manure.
Out on the pitch, Tevez immediately channeled the energy that had driven him through the first forty-five minutes. Yet, without Bellamy to feed him, and the City defence surrounding him with a three or four-man escort from the restart, the Argentine dynamo was getting nowhere. Worse, with his mates constantly trying to get him the ball, City was picking off pass after pass to devastating effect at the opposite end. Shay was besieged and, in Carlos’ allotted ten minutes, Mancini’s minions had turned the match on end, with goals from Aguero and Dzeko.
George’s calm, matter-of-fact voice sounded in his ear. “Sorry Carlos, but it’s time.”
Tevez stopped and looked up to the sky in frustration. After a short moment, he came to a decision — then played on. Sparky began gesturing at him from the coach’s box. Carlos simply ignored him. He gathered in two more touches, but both were smothered.
George’s voice re-entered his ear. “Carlos, what are you doing? We can get the money without you, but if you want that Cup you need to get your ass over here!”
Carlos ground his teeth, but played on.
George’s voice had lost its calm and taken on a hard edge. Sparky was screaming at him. His teammates weren’t sure whether to give him the ball or not. An additional ten minutes dragged by while Tevez balanced revenge and a stubborn refusal to accept defeat on a knife’s edge.
George’s voice was replaced by Kia’s. “Carlos, amigo. que pasa? You are ruining everything, mano. Come on now, leave the game. Bamos!”
Defying his trusted advisor, Carlos played on. Another five minutes ran down.
Finally, with City in possession for a moment, he jogged over to Ade and Roque Santa Cruz.
“Do you two want all that money?” The pair nodded as one.
“Of course we do, Charlie,” Ade assured him.
“Well, you need me to get it for you,” he lied, “and I’m not leaving this pitch until the score is level . Do you understand me?”
The pair exchanged serious glances, then nodded at Tevez once more.
“Bien,” he nodded back. “Let’s get to work,”
Turning, he looked around for the ball, noting that Adam Johnson and Silva were working it back and forth on one flank, as the Exiles desperately held their shape, barring City’s path to goal. Carlos darted over, coming on the young Englishman from behind just as he accepted another pass and nicked it cleanly off his boot.
With possession, Carlos quickly slotted the ball over to Stephen Ireland, who sent it up the pitch to Santa Cruz. The Paraguayan sold a dummy to his mark, and before cover could arrive, crossed to Ade. The Togolese shook off the attentions of Micah Richards and danced towards the box. All the while, Tevez was streaking straight down the middle of the pitch. He ran straight onto Ade’s return cross, catching Joe Hart sliding the wrong way, and poking the ball into the open corner before his shadows could converge on him.
Yelling in triumph, he sprinted to the corner, tearing his shirt from his body and waving it madly over his head. When he reached the flag, he threw his kit over a camera lens and, having revealed a tee-shirt underneath which read F— City, he ripped the stick from the ground. Turning again, he ran to the stands and hurtled it into the tenth row like a javelin.
Purged of emotion, he turned to find the official brandishing a red card.
“Are you all happy now?” he muttered into the concealed mike.
“Yeah, Carlos. We’re happy,” George was back online. “The game is all tied up. Now get your f—in’ ass over here.” As a happy Roque and Ade caught up to him, wrapping him in an embrace, he shouted in their ears. “If you lose this match, I’ll burn every stinking Euro!”
Bridgey wasn’t nearly as happy as Roque or Ade. His face was firmly planted in the wall of the tiny office. When he had sprung at De Jong, the Dutchman had been surprised but had sidestepped him adroitly, and Bridgey had hit the wall at full speed. De Jong moved in behind him, grabbed Bridgey’s right arm, and twisted it up into his back.
“What the hell are you trying to do, Bridgey?” he whispered. “George and Brad said to make it look good, but that was dangerous. Someone could get hurt.”
“W-what?” Bridgey sputtered into the wall. “You’re with us?”
“Of course, I am mate,” Nigel answered releasing his grip and stepping back. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Well, you’re still with the club,” Bridgey reasoned.
“Have you noticed how little they’re playing me?” Nigel sneered. “They used me to get to this level, and now that they’re here, I’m too dangerous. How ridiculous is that?”
Bridgey tried to find a delicate way to put it, but couldn’t. “Well, not much really. You are pretty dangerous.”
Nigel shrugged. “Yes, yes, but they should still show a little loyalty. No, I’m on the way out, like you. Only, I’m not going to wait two years to get mine.”
Bridgey took the insult in stride. A truth for a truth, after all. “Well, what do we do now?”
“I get to wreck this room,” Nigel replied, “and you get to go off and help yourself to all that loot.”
“Sounds like a fair trade,” Bridgey grinned. Nigel grudgingly smiled in return, then took a step forward. “Move aside.”
Bridgey moved, and Nigel happily picked up the credenza from against the wall, staggered backwards several steps, then with a yell, charged. The wall crumpled, with the piece of furniture and the Dutchman disappearing through a massive hole.
Bridgey stepped through to see whether Nigel might have actually hurt himself this time, and found himself in a dimly lit hallway. Nigel was fine, brushing drywall dust and fragments away casually. The credenza hadn’t survived.
“Where are we?” Bridgey asked.
“Secret passage,” Nigel answered.
Bridgey raised an eyebrow, wondering how the Dutchman knew of its existence.
“What? Jô doesn’t know all the secrets of this place. His balls may be cut off, but mine aren’t, and a few of his girls like a strong man. I’ve snuck in here on more than one occasion.”
“Oh come on, Bridgey, I may be a maniac but I’m not an idiot. I’ll just tell them I threw you through the wall, had no idea what was behind it…”
Bridgey thought for a moment, then shrugged. “Yeah, that ought to work.”
“Sure it will. Just have to make it look good.”
“Hu– Ooof!” Bridgey didn’t catch on until after Nigel had hit him in the gut. Doubling over in pain, he tried to protest but couldn’t find his voice.
“It’s okay, mate,” Nigel encouraged. “Just breathe slowly, you’ll be fine. There’s a lot more pain than damage.”
Bridgey winced, and straightened. “Gee, thanks,” he croaked, “that’s a huge comfort.”
“No worries,” Nigel smiled. “Now, just head that way, and you’ll find George, Brad and Kia waiting. Help yourself to as much cash as you can, and get back here before the end of the match. Those two gorillas are waiting.”
Bridgey nodded his thanks and began to move gingerly down the passage.
The referee had his arm up, eying his watch, and the whistle to his mouth. Despite being a man down, the Exiles had fought tooth and nail, refusing to give ground under a relentless City attack. They had reached the ninety minute mark still level at three.
Yawning, not for the first time, Vanessa whispered into Sheikh Mansour’s ear as they watched from his special Box. Leaning over, but not taking his eyes off the pitch, he nodded his assent. Covering her mouth again, the Frenchwoman rose, and made her way out of the stadium, as the match slipped into added time.
Unsurprisingly, given the locale, a full six minutes had been tacked on. Yet, the Exiles did not waver. Ade and Roque were playing more defence in this friendly than they had played in their entire careers.
Six minutes dragged into seven, then eight. The Exiles still hung on.
Finally, Petrov found the ball and hoofed it over the centre circle. The whistle sounded.
The match had ended at last, and City had been denied the victory. Mancini shook hands with Sparky, his predecessor, and had the good sense to not look to the owner’s box as he made his way off the pitch. Mansour stood, and with a hard look at Mubarak, strode away, with his security falling into step.
In the bowels of the palace, George, Brad and Bridgey sympathised with a very concerned Kia.
“We’ve moved all we have time for,” Brad told him. “We know you’re worried, but it’s time to haul ass.”
“I do not leave without Carlos,” Kia said.
“We don’t know where he is, mate,” Bridgey cautioned. “And I have to get back to Nigel, or we’re all nicked.”
“I have a very good idea where he is,” Kia insisted. “But you needn’t be troubled. I will go after him alone. Good luck to all of you.”
“Are you certain?” George asked.
“Si, amigo,” Kia replied.
“Alright, then,” George nodded. “Good luck.”
Sheikh Mansour strode into the trophy hall, followed by his retinue and a very subdued Khaldoon Al Mubarak, and stopped in his tracks. The case which held his FA Cup stood open and empty. He slipped back the sleeve of his jacket, revealing the security watch still on his left wrist. He turned to his guards and gestured back the way they had come.
“They can’t get far,” he said. “Fools.”
Winding through the palace, he came to the door guarded by the two gorillas. “Open it, you idiots!”
The duo sprang into action, fighting each other to get key to lock. Finally they threw open the doors, only to see Bridgey in the clutches of Nigel De Jong. The Dutchman was gripping his victim by the collar, fist cocked. Bridgey’s hands were covering his face. Nigel looked towards the Sheikh, and, with a hint of disappointment in his voice, asked, “Already?”
The Sheikh walked into the room, flicking a wrist towards De Jong. The enforcer let go of Bridgey, who stumbled backwards a step before recovering, and straightening his shirt. Mansour walked over to the hole in the wall and turned to look questioningly at Nigel, who shrugged sheepishly. The royal sized up the situation.
“Khaldoon,” the Sheikh said in a clear, cutting tone, “I am very displeased. See that Mr Bridge makes his flight and then report to me. We have much to discuss.”
The limo pulled up to the departure terminal, and Bridgey got out when the red cap opened the door. He waited patiently for Mubarak, who escorted him through security and to the boarding gate.
“We have been holding the flight, sirs,” the gate attendant informed them.
Mubarak turned to Bridgey, his face a thunderous cloud. “If I never see you again, Englishman, it will be too soon. Good riddance.”
Bridgey tried to think of a snappy comeback, but he was a bit new to having the upper hand, and drew a blank. A bit embarrassed, he handed the attendant his boarding pass, and stepped through the gate. George and Brad were seated together near the front of the aircraft, flying first class as always, and sipping champagne. They smiled at the sight of him, then gestured with their glasses to indicate that the rest of the party was further back.
As he pulled the curtains which divided first class from economy, a cheer greeted him from the rest of the Exiles, all completely oblivious to Mansour’s final slight. Bridgey’s seat was all the way to the rear of the plane, across the aisle from Sparky. He stowed his bag in the overhead compartment, and took his seat. A woman had the window seat, but her head was buried in a fashion magazine.
As he clicked his safety belt into place, she lowered her reading material and smiled hopefully at him. Bridgey was stunned to see Vanessa, but before he could ask why she was there, she dropped a watch that looked exactly like Sheikh Mansour’s into his lap. It was faint now, as its battery must have run down, but the alarm was beeping and the dial flashing.
“Amour,” she murmured, and gave him a deep kiss. Coming up for air, he stared at the watch. If it was here, and raising a ruckus, where was the Cup? He looked around, quizzically, then turned to Sparky.
“Where are Carlos and Kia?”
The Welshman shrugged, “No one’s seen them.” A bejeweled hand snaked around Bridgey’s neck, and he forgot the conspirators, immersing himself entirely in the long-missed affections of Madame Perroncel.
The sun was very high in the desert sky as two small figures on camels led a third beast, bearing a large chest, over the dunes. They were inexperienced with the animals, and heading away from any settlement, but they were unconcerned. In fact, they were laughing and singing.
“Do you know, Kia?” one said to the other. “These ugly animals aren’t as bad as they’re made out.”
“Si,” agreed his companion. “They’re very easy to negotiate with, if you just show them a bit of kindness.”
The Qatari Job, Part VII: The Cup Runneth Over by Martin Palazzotto is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.