Lead Image by Action Images FILM
Cashing In is the new football novel by Sid Lambert set in the inaugural 1992-3 Premier League season. It tells the story of Ray Cash, a 19-year-old footballer disillusioned with the game after a tragic accident involving his twin brother. Pressured into pursuing his career by his grieving dad, he signs with agent Paul Francisco, a larger-than-life Northerner who knows the murky world of top-flight football.
In part one of our serialisation, Ray is recovering from an unwitting spot of tabloid trouble that threatens his future at Mike Walker’s high-flying Norwich City.
No laughing matter
I recognised that laugh a mile away. I was ambling through the corridors, fresh from a meet-and-greet with a local sponsor.
It was Paul. By the sound of it, he was making himself comfortable in the manager’s office. My instinct told me to keep going and think nothing of it, but part of me wouldn’t let it go. What was he doing here? Had I done something wrong? The furore over the Carole thing had slowly died down. Admittedly the clip from the paper was a permanent fixture at the training ground. But that was eight weeks ago and I was slowly moving back into the first-team picture, picking up the occasional appearance fee for 15 minutes of work here and there as a substitute. I could cope with that.
The door to the manager’s office was ajar. I inched forward, careful not to make too much noise on the creaking floorboards. The chairman’s reputation for stringent financial controls was well-deserved.
As I made it to within earshot of the discussion, the chairman was the topic of conversation once again.
“We’re third in the league. We need to spend. United bought Cantona and look at them, they’re flying.”
In one of the season’s most surprising moves Manchester United had spent £1.2m to sign Eric Cantona from fierce rivals Leeds United. Howard Wilkinson had grown weary of the mercurial Frenchman and a chance phone call to Old Trafford about the availability of Denis Irwin resulted in an unexpected deal being struck. Irwin stayed, Cantona was on his way.
His guile, combined with the pace of Andrei Kanchelskis and Ryan Giggs and the power of warhorse Mark Hughes, made the Red Devils a potent attacking force. In fact, they had lost only once since his arrival. After three wins out of four in February, United were showing no signs of the mental strain that botched their title bid the previous season.
The press said Norwich needed to strengthen if they were going to keep pace with United. The chairman didn’t agree.
“He’s a tight bastard, that Chase. You’ll find more airspace in Mary Magdalene’s fanny,” said Paul.
Walker’s frustration was understandable. Given the club’s wage bill, they should have been battling relegation, not fighting for the title. The press called it a miracle and spent each week waiting for the bubble to burst. The thought of Norwich City winning the title, and scooping up Sky’s record prize money in the process, was impossible.
“You know where that money will end up, don’t you?” said Paul. “A holiday home in Tenerife, while you and the lads grind away for peanuts.”
“Look, how long can you hold on this deal? I like the boy Ekoku. I want him here. I just need to do get a couple of things moving. We’re going to have to ship somebody out to get him in,” said Walker.
Efan Ekoku. The Bournemouth striker whose red-hot form was making plenty of headlines. There had been rumours for months that he was bound for the Premier League but Paul had resisted, insisting they wait for the right offer.
“Clock’s ticking, Mike.”
“Are Forest still interested? Anything you can do to give us more time?”
“As it happens, there might be. I’m on the brink of selling them Bob Rosario from Coventry.”
Robert Rosario. Arguably the most exotic name to come out of Harrow Borough. And the least popular. The 6ft 3in centre-forward tipped the scales at a hefty 15st and his name still carried considerable weight at Carrow Road. He’d moved to Coventry in 1991 after seven sparse years at Norwich.
In many respects, Rosario was the type of striker that England loved: a big, immobile bruiser in the mould of John Fashanu and Mick Harford. Unfortunately, he had an achilles heel: he couldn’t score.
A paltry tally of 29 goals in 161 appearances made him a much-maligned presence in the Norwich first team. The mere mention of his name still evoked groans from the Canaries’ fanbase. I remembered hearing the scorn from the terraces radiate through the TV set on the rare occasions the cameras made it to East Anglia. You couldn’t fault his effort, but the fans had made their mind up. No matter how hard he ran or how high he jumped, the second he made a mistake they pounced on it. It was my worst fear.
Norwich were keen to offload him. The problem was that there wasn’t much demand in the market for a striker who didn’t hit the back of the net.
According to Paul, he’d worked miracles to negotiate a deal to get the goal-shy forward to Coventry. In fact, he still had a framed image of Rosario signing his contract next to City manager Terry Butcher. In the background you could see Paul smiling with the juvenile glee of a youngster unwrapping his Christmas presents.
As it happened, Rosario had proved to be an unlikely hit at Highfield Road. Though he was by no means a frequent scorer, he’d proved a very useful provider for Micky Quinn. Their partnership had lifted City to the dizzy heights of fifth in the league. It was the best spell of Rosario’s career. He’d turned him from zero to hero in the space of two years, thanks in part to his agent’s wheeling and dealing. Paul never tired of reliving the experience.
“One of the best days of my life that was, Cashy,” he’d told me. “Smashing fella, Bob. Great lad, but he just couldn’t shoot straight. Fuck me, if he’d aimed at JFK, he’d probably have shot Nixon instead. That’s how bad he was back then.”
He paused momentarily and looked out into the distance. The Manchester skyline was typically grey and the rain was pouring.
“It’s a tough game this, buying and selling,“ he sighed. “I love all of my lads. Do anything for them. Christine says I care too much. And she’s probably right.”
He switched his gaze to the framed picture.
“You’re dealing with people’s futures right here,” he said, pointing to the cosy interior of his huge hands.
“When you get a result like I did that day, good contract for Bob, good money for Norwich. Well, I don’t think I’ve ever been better. “
At that moment a flood of joy and self-belief swept across his features.
“Honestly, I could have walked the streets of Bethlehem and sold Jesus of Nazareth a box of nails that day. Un-fucking-believable, I was.”
Back in his office, Walker broke the uncomfortable silence.
“Hellfire, Paul. I didn’t expect that. Are you telling me that our hopes of getting a striker to win us the league rest on you flogging Big Bob? To Cloughie?” he said, puffing his cheeks in disbelief.
“Look Mike, here’s the thing. You agree to paying Bournemouth five hundred grand for Ekoku and the deal’s on. I don’t want him at Forest either. They’re doomed. It would be a death sentence for his career if he ended up there. A fucking death sentence.”
“Even five hundred might be a stretch,” said Walker.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way, Michael. Pour me a nice glass of something and let’s see if we can work it out.”
At that moment, I heard footsteps coming from the other end of the corridor and headed out to the car park. I left the conversation overwhelmed by a sense of relief. I wasn’t in trouble with the manager. The safe little niche I’d carved out for myself at Carrow Road was staying intact.
Two days later, Paul’s car screeched to a halt outside the training ground.
“Get in, Cashy. And put this on.” He threw me a dark blue suit with the Marks and Spencer label still attached.
“What’s this? Where are we going?” I asked.
“Nottingham. You’re moving to Forest and we’re meeting Brian Clough this afternoon.”
Despite finishing eighth the previous year, this season had been a disaster for Forest. England centre-back and defensive lynchpin Des Walker had left for Sampdoria. Star striker Teddy Sheringham, who scored the first televised goal in Premier League history in a 1-0 win over Liverpool, had moved to Tottenham. Neither had been properly replaced.
The team was relying heavily on stalwarts Stuart Pearce and Nigel Clough. Even the combined talents of those two fan favourites weren’t enough to keep Forest out of the relegation battle.
It was unfamiliar territory for a side with a reputation for top-six finishes and impressive cup runs. Throughout the season pundits had dismissed Forest’s woes as a blip, insisting they were too good to go down. An upturn in form in the New Year suggested they might be right. Five wins from seven games meant that Forest were finally out of the bottom three.
There were rumours that further signings were imminent and the Midlands’ side was ready to spend on some big names to consolidate their Premier League safety.
My heart sank when I realised that was me.