Jane never spoke more than a few words to the players at this stage. Her coaching staff knew who needed a kick up the backside and who responded to an arm around the shoulder. She let her team do its job. She’d been through the tactical stuff during training that week and in any event she knew and trusted this team. Routine was important to her, ingrained in her approach to the game and even on the evening of a cup final she insisted on the same routines with which everyone was so familiar. Just another game was her mantra and (when she was safely out of earshot) they’d often call her ‘Just another game Jane’. She’d been called worse.
She knew what they called her. She knew all the nicknames and who liked her and who envied her and who tolerated her and who loved her but frankly, when it came down to it she simply didn’t care. She wasn’t a hard woman. No matter what the papers said she wasn’t the ice queen, not the cold, emotionless, driven caricature of the sports pages. She was capable of deep warmth and affection. She loved her husband, her children and as much (on occasions she had to admit possibly more) her chocolate brown labradors who were probably the only creatures alive to ever hear her deepest secrets. The long walks with those dogs were more than just relaxation for Jane, it was when she got the whole obsessive business of football out of her system. The dogs knew more about her hopes and private fears than any human would ever hope to.
She didn’t care about the opinions of others nor the esteem with which they held her because there simply wasn’t room for such emotional distractions. She’d learned the hard way what focus really meant. She cared about two things; loyalty to the club and winning. By keeping her objectives so blinkered, so narrow she had been able to close out the prejudice, the snide, sneering playground politics with which her career had been beset from the day she had made the historic shift to the first team. In fact it had started way before that. Her talent had been recognised at a very young age and she’d trained with the boys right from the start. There had long been talk of women breaking through into the men’s game but professional football was one of the last relics (or bastions if you preferred, depending upon your standpoint) of the male domination which had been so ingrained in British society.
Arsenal had always been a forward thinking club and the integration of the youth structure had been a hugely important step but one which had failed to excite much attention at the time. However, despite appearing alongside the boys at every level right up to the under twenty ones it was Jane’s inclusion on the first team sheet for the FA Cup replay against Bristol City which had really started the shitstorm. The British press had a long and proud tradition of bigotry, small minded and above all lazy stereotyping and the sports pages took this to Olympian heights. There had been a tabloid feeding frenzy. And she’d only been named amongst the substitutes. In the event her goal against a hapless west country team on the way to relegation from the league and eventual bankruptcy and dissolution at least gave the hacks something else to write about other than her gender, but in the context of that match, with the Arsenal already eight nil up before she came on for her nine minute cameo, she’d made little real impact.
In truth apart from being the first woman to play a competitive first team match her playing career had been undistinguished. She’d been a useful squad player, a midfielder who could pick out a pass and pick her opponents pocket turning defence into attack in the blink of an eye. Of course she’d learned from the best. Arsenal had long been credited with changing the way the defensive game was played. Dangerous, lumpish, brutal tackling was a thing of the past. It had started way back when Mikel Arteta had played for the club. He’d been the first defensive midfielder to show that interceptions or nicking the ball from the toes of an opponent was far more effective than hitting them like a rugby union fullback and sending the ball and man flying over the turf to destinations unknown. He’d been one of the senior coaches at the club when she was a girl and she was as grateful for his influence than almost any other. However, it was a simple fact that, no matter how good she was, being one of the best in the country didn’t amount to that much at Arsenal where the quality of the players was so high throughout the squad. She could of course have walked into virtually any other side in the league. She would have transformed one of the lower division London teams like Spurs or Chelsea and could probably have captained a premier league mid table team with some distinction. But her creed was loyalty and winning. Loyalty to the club that made her who she was came first then and always. She’d never once considered a transfer, the ‘big fish small pond’ idea left her cold.
If she’d had an indifferent playing career it was as a coach and then, manager that she had truly realised her potential. She’d gone abroad to learn her trade in Holland, following in the footsteps of the club’s second most successful manager of all time. The Ajax/Arsenal connection was of course well established and had allowed her to learn her trade away from the slavering idiocy of the English media. When Dennis had announced his retirement, a day on which men and woman had openly wept at the news, the speculation as to his successor hadn’t included Jane. No one saw her coming. She smiled at the memory. Years before, nobody had wanted Arsene to retire, of course not, but after his historic hat trick of European and domestic doubles the old man had finally decided the time was right to call it a day. No one imagined that even Dennis could emulate his success but such had been the care with which Arsene had considered his legacy that in truth, almost any manager would have found success. The players, ethos, facilities and traditions of the club passed seamlessly to the Dutchman and in time to the country’s first ever female manager.
It was ridiculous she thought. Even way back in the reactionary strife torn nineteen seventies the country’s most hidebound backward looking political institution had been able to choose a woman for its leader and the small minded lazy British electorate had seen fit to make her prime minister a few years later. Yet it had taken well over half a century for a football club to appoint a female as head coach. But when, in your professional life at least, you only cared about two things, ignoring the hullabaloo and entrenched views of the idiot brigade was actually a doddle. It was like scoring an important goal in a cup final. If all you saw was the huge empty net waiting for the ball, if the other players, the crowd, even the occasion itself dissolved into nothing then passing the ball into that net was the simplest thing in the world. It was distraction that prevented people from making the all important contribution on the football pitch. Fear of failure, worrying about what your opponent might do, the barracking of the crowd all had to be put from your mind. Her players often said that it was the work she did with them off the pitch which helped them achieve such phenomenal success on it. As much as the tactics and training with the ball she knew how to get them to think straight, to shuck off the pointless, debilitating distractions of the game and see clearly what they needed to do and how to do it.
And now here she was. Wembley stadium. About to send her team out in her first cup final as Arsenal manager. Here was the greatest club side in the history of professional football making another cup final appearance but not under the guidance of Arsene or Dennis, these were her players and this would be her victory. She’d never even considered the possibility of defeat, never talked about the opposition, she had simply told her team how they were going to win. Just as she did week in week out as they’d climbed and then headed the league table.
After all, when you got right down to it, this was just another game.