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 two of our serialisation, a reluctant Ray is on his way to the City Ground to meet Brian Clough after learning that Norwich had agreed to sell him to strugglers Nottingham Forest.
That sinking feeling when you win the pools
“Now then, Raymond. Your agent here tells me you can run,” said Mr. Clough as we sat in the Forest canteen.
I nodded apprehensively, over-awed by all the stories I’d heard about the man in front of me.
“Then how’s about you run over to that desk and grab my cup of tea, nice and quick before it gets cold.”
I looked at Paul uncertain as to whether it was a joke. He jerked his head in the direction of the rogue china and realised it wasn’t. I leapt out of my seat immediately. I returned seconds later, relieved to see that the drink had stayed intact despite my unsteady hand betraying my nerves.
“Very good. Just checking you could do as you’re told, son,” he said whilst patting Paul tenderly on the knee. “This young man here has sold me some rubbish before, you know.”
Norwich had accepted a £100,000 offer from Forest who were offering a two-year deal on £1,000 a week, a substantial increase on my current wage packet. My signing-on fee was five grand. I barely had time to utter the words “death sentence” before Paul ushered me out to the corridor to discuss the deal.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Cashy. Liven up, son. We’ve just won the pools here,” he said.
I thought about the rumours I’d heard about Clough: the unpredictable temper tantrums and the way he treated anyone who didn’t meet his standards. I thought about Gary Megson, who’d been an exemplary pro at Norwich, and Clough’s intolerance for his pre-match nerves.
“I should probably talk to Dad first,” I said.
“Your dad’s busy working his backside off so you could have opportunities like this,” he said. “This is five grand up front we’re talking about and a grand a week in your pocket. You can buy a new motor and drive up to Manchester to tell him yourself. Christ, with that money, you can pick up Sam Fox and she’ll give you a blow job whilst you’re sitting in traffic on the M6.”
The deal was done on March 2nd, 1993. At Paul’s behest, Forest released a statement to the press saying they were signing “proven Premier League players” to ensure their safety in the top flight and that a further announcement would be made tomorrow morning before the home game with fellow strugglers Crystal Palace.
I’d gone from the top of the table to the bottom in one signature. From comfortable bit-part player to bold new signing. In that instance, I understood why players obsessed over contracts, wages and fees. The popular narrative when a player tries to leave a club is about loyalty: you should stay with the club and be grateful. Any attempt to better yourself, to maximise the value of a short career is looked upon as greed.
But what if a player doesn’t want to leave? You risk being marginalised, frozen out and forgotten.
I thought about Danny Wallace at Manchester United. A flying winger in his Southampton heyday, Wallace had suffered from loss of form and a raft of injuries, neither of which spared him the wrath of the Old Trafford crowd. In my days at United, he was a frequent fixture in the physio room as he fought tirelessly to rediscover his form. Leeds fans would taunt their rivals with chants of, “You signed the wrong Wallace” when younger brother Rod was starring at Elland Road. Few of the Stretford End shed any tears when Danny was eventually sold to Birmingham City.
Then there was Ralph Milne going through the motions, jogging glumly round the pitch with the reserves. His contract expiring, he knew that his best days were in the past and a long-standing relationship with drink and gambling meant his future was far from certain.
This was my first experience of football’s universal truth: in the eyes of clubs and fans you are nothing more than a commodity. And when that commodity loses value, or could be traded for another of higher value, you are discarded.
Look after yourself, son. Because no other cunt will.
Soon afterwards Efan Ekoku finally sealed his dream move to Norwich City.
“It’s just a bump in the road, that’s all it is,” said Dad as he sipped a pint of a lager at a table in the corner of the Red Lion pub. His fingers tapped nervously on the freshly varnished wooden surface, occasionally picking up speed as his thoughts raced in different directions.
He’d met me in Nottingham ahead of my Forest debut. In his mind, it was a fatherly attempt to boost my confidence. He thought his words were encouraging though if he’d bothered to lift his gaze away from the bubbling surface of his pint glass, he’d have seen otherwise. My mind had long since drifted elsewhere. My head nodded automatically at the all-too-familiar points in the one-sided conversation.
“You’ll be back.”
“You’re too good to be at the bottom of the league.”
“We won’t let this stop you. We’ll get you back to the top where you belong.”
I remembered the time when I was eleven years old and he came in from work to find me crying at the dining room table because I couldn’t do my chemistry homework. For some reason, I still thought about that a lot.
We’d moved to a town called Maidstone, which offered better schools and services than Yalding but for Dad at least it was further to travel to work. He’d drive his old blue Chevette to Catford bus garage in the early hours of the morning. His bus driving shift would typically last twelve hours, including four hours of overtime for the princely reward of time and a third. It was a job he absolutely despised.
I remembered all the times I would hear him grumbling to Mum about the pay and the conditions, the way he was looked down upon by the general public. It was always accompanied by the rapid opening of a can of cheap Kestrel lager. And the conversation always ended with the same sentiments.
“It’s for the boys. It’ll be worth it when they make it to the big time,” he’d say and the thought would return a smile to his face.
On the night of the chemistry homework, he’d come and sat down beside me, cradling my head on his shoulder and patting my hair until I stopped sobbing. By the time I did, I felt embarrassed about my reaction. He immediately put me at ease.
“It’s fine, Ray. We can’t be good at everything. Some things come easy, some you have to work harder to get them right,” he said.
He took off his cheap company clip-on tie, loosened the top button and rolled up the sleeves of his white polyester shirt. He took a quick swig of lager and ran his finger across the first line of the weathered chemistry textbook in front of him.
“Now let’s do this together, shall we?” he said, before trying to help me decipher the mysteries of the periodic table.
I thought about that man. A man who had every right to be disgruntled and disappointed with what life had afforded him, yet immediately put his bitterness aside when his son needed him, even for something as trivial as his chemistry homework. I wondered if I would be so selfless in that position.
Most of all, I wondered where that father was now.
The running man
I didn’t have time to train with the squad ahead of my debut against Palace where I would fill in at left-back for long-term injury victim Stuart Pearce.
When my name was read out to the crowd, it received a modicum of half-hearted cheers. Which was at least better than Big Bob fared. Safe to say that he wasn’t quite the star striker the Forest faithful were hoping for.
Before the game, Roy Keane – whose form was the one bright spot in Forest’s otherwise miserable season – approached me during the warm-up. The young Irish midfielder was the personification of anger. His face adorned with a near-permanent snarl, he showed the same relentless determination that had helped him throughout his teenage years when he was frequently dismissed as being too small for professional football.
I’d seen plenty of talented players suffer the same fate. Frequently they showed more skill, poise and a better touch than their colleagues. Sadly for them, scouts wanted athletes, not good footballers. And when life-changing decisions were made, size always mattered.
Despite being rejected by every English side he approached, Keane had refused to accept defeat, opting instead to build his career in the Irish leagues. Now, just two years after signing for Forest from little-known Cobh Ramblers, he was the most sought-after midfielder in the Premier League.
It was an open secret that he had an escape clause in his contract should Forest get relegated. The little man was now in a position to ask for big money, so much so that Clough had called him a “greedy child” earlier in the season when news of the negotiation broke. It hadn’t affected their relationship. Keane was still desperate to bust a gut for his club – and his manager.
“I hear you can run,” he said, shaking my hand firmly. “You see that man over there?”
He pointed at Clough, who was signing autographs for a gaggle of adoring children.
“I’d run through a fucking wall for him. You pull out of one single fucking tackle today and you’ll be running from me.”
I took him at his word and spent ninety minutes chasing every lost cause, heading every set piece and throwing myself into every tackle. All the focus on technique that had been drilled into me over years at The Cliff disappeared in a whirlwind of perpetual motion.
The game finished 1-1, Keane cancelling out Southgate’s opener for the visitors. A point was of little value for either side, though I made a favourable impression on the locals who gave me a good reception when cramp forced me to make way for Kingsley Black.
“It’s okay to slow down you know, Raymond,” said the boss as I made my way to the bench. “Let the ball do the work. It’s been in this game a lot longer than you have.”