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 3 of our serialisation, Ray has been shipped out of Norwich to raise funds for the incoming Efan Ekoku. He signs for Nottingham Forest, alongside Coventry striker Robert ‘Big Bob’ Rosario, as Brian Clough’s side battle relegation.

 

The sting

The boss called me at 7am the morning after my debut. There was no instruction except that I should meet him outside his house at 9am in my full training kit, including my boots. I arrived a quarter of an hour early and he emerged from his door wearing his dark green winter coat and grey flat cap, accompanied by his faithful dog Del Boy.

We strolled round to the park. He whistled happily whilst I tottered on my boots. They crunched on the wet pavement and I had to concentrate intently to keep my balance. It had rained heavily until the early hours and every few metres I would feel the studs skid slightly on the concrete. The first time I did it, the boss interrupted his musical interlude to express his disapproval via a mild tut. I was sure not repeat the trick.

I was relieved to finally reach the sodden turf of the park. The boss pulled a handkerchief out of his coat pocket. It had started to drizzle again and my thin club tracksuit top wouldn’t hold off the moisture for long. While Del Boy trotted off to deal with nature’s more serious call, the boss asked me to take a long look at the green space in front of me.

“What is it you see, son?”

“Space. Lots of space,” I said nervously, wondering if it was a trick question.

“Good answer, young man. Good answer.”

He replaced the handkerchief in his pocket and, duties fulfilled, Del Boy returned to his side. The boss re-attached the lead and turned to his right where a dense row of stinging nettles marked the perimeter of the park. From his left pocket this time, he produced an old red rubber ball. He held it in the palm of his hand and threw it under-arm some five metres into the nettles.

Del Boy didn’t move.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” he said.

Del Boy still didn’t move.

“Something wrong with your hearing, son? All that hair getting in the way is it?”

“Me?” I stammered nervously.

“Well you won’t get Del Boy in there, you know. He’s not daft.”

Del Boy raised his nose in my direction as if to re-affirm his master’s instruction.

“There’s nowhere to run. I’ll get cut to pieces in there,” I said.

“Didn’t stop you yesterday did it, Raymond? There are twenty two players on a football pitch and a referee. There are no wide open spaces out there. Yet you still ran all over the bloody place like a cocker spaniel.”

“I’m good at running though. That’s what people have always said.”

“If I wanted a runner, I’d buy a horse, Raymond. There’s no point running if you’ve got no bloody direction. Now in you go, and if it hurts then find a quicker path. Use your brain.”

The nettles scraped against my bare legs as I hurriedly ran through the dense foliage to the back fence and managed to retrieve the ball. I rushed back through and held it out triumphantly. I was breathing hard and the rash was already raging across my shins and thighs. My arms were ok though if I’d been in there scrabbling around on the deck much longer, the nettles would have found a way through.

“Well done, son.”

He examined the ball briefly before throwing it back into the massed ranks of weeds again.

“Now do it faster this time. You’re going to learn to use your wits, Raymond. Not just those long, skinny legs of yours. And you’ll stop when Del Boy and I think you’ve learnt your lesson.”

Del Boy didn’t move.

 

Dance with the devil

The cramp I experienced during the Palace game turned out to be something more serious. I’d strained my hamstring and was ruled out for three weeks. Thankfully I missed the clash with Norwich, who strolled to a 3-0 win without breaking sweat. The arrival of the two new signings had hardly heralded the new dawn Forest fans were hoping for. The team was winless in four games. I’d managed one appearance and Bob hadn’t come close to hitting the scoresheet.

I made my return playing in midfield versus Southampton at The Dell. I was up against Terry Hurlock and spent the entire warm-up trying to stay as far away from him as possible. Hurlock was notorious as a nasty piece of work, a throwback to the days when the middle of the park was patrolled by hatchet men intent on battering their foes into submission.

He made his name at Millwall. The crowd at Cold Blow Lane gave him the affectionate moniker “Gypo” for his appearance. Never before had a man with long curly hair and an earring struck so much fear into the hearts of so many.

“Horrible bastard that Hurlock, Cashy. Five foot nine of pure fucking evil,” said Paul in conversation on the eve of the game.

“He’s the devil’s spawn. The worst of humanity. I tried to sign him for Wimbledon once. They’d have loved him there.”

I’d been warned by the rest of the Forest dressing room that as a new face in midfield, I’d have a target on my back. Less than a minute in, I collapsed in a heap with the Southampton man’s studs embedded in my calf muscle.

For the duration of the first half, Hurlock hammered me at every opportunity. He seemed oblivious to the fact that there was a game going on. His sole purpose was to do me some damage.

It culminated in a challenge on the stroke of half-time which left me wincing in pain just in front of the home dugout. After the referee had admonished him and sent both teams to the dressing room, Hurlock waited for me by the side of the pitch.

“What’s the matter? Never been tackled before, you little cunt? Grow some fucking bollocks,” he said.

As we walked into the tunnel, the boss was waiting. He ruffled my hair as I walked past then promptly hammered a right hook into Hurlock’s genitalia. The hard man doubled up in pain, gasping for every precious breath of oxygen he could muster.

By this stage he was leaning desperately against the wall for some kind of support. The boss grabbed his left shoulder to stop him tumbling to the concrete. With his left hand he secured Hurlock’s chin and turned it so they were eye-to-eye barely a few centimetres apart. Hurlock, who had spent 45 minutes snarling his way across the pitch, looked terrified.

“You worry about your own genitalia, Terence. And let young Raymond here enjoy a nice game of football,” he said, before planting a tender kiss on the midfielder’s right cheek.

He then ushered me into the dressing room, much to the bemusement of the two stewards who witnessed the whole spectacle.

The second half was a much less hurtful affair for me. Hurlock kept his distance and we held on for a precious 2-1 win thanks to goals from Keane and Nigel Clough.

It was a precious result for the team and a lesson for me about life in the Premier League. I stepped onto the coach afterwards and made my way towards my seat. As I did so, there was a tug on my tracksuit. The boss was in his usual spot, eyes fixed on the horizon, not acknowledging any of his fellow passengers.

He maintained his stare whilst beckoning me closer with his index finger.

“Little bit more fight please, Raymond. There’s more where that bastard came from.”

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Cashing In is available here and you can follow Sid on Twitter @Sid_Lambert for more football nostalgia.

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