Awaking in the middle of a prodigiously tough snore, and sitting up in his chair to get his thoughts together, Robbo had no occasion to be told that the fourth official’s board was still upon the number One. He felt that he was restored to consciousness in the right nick of time, for the especial purpose of holding a conference with the second messenger despatched to him through Martyn Pert’s intervention. But, finding that he turned uncomfortably cold when he began to wonder which of his office windows this new spectre would rattle, he kept a wary eye on each one; and sitting down again, established a sharp look-out all round the office. For he wished to challenge the Spirit on the moment of its appearance, and did not wish to be taken by surprise, and made nervous.
Now, being prepared for almost anything, he was not by any means prepared for nothing; and, consequently, when the board stuck at One, and no shape appeared, he was taken with a violent fit of trembling. Five minutes, ten minutes, a quarter of an hour went by, yet nothing came. All this time, he sat upon his chair, angrily pointing to his wrist as if to indicate that time was well and truly up.
Yet he could not help but notice that he was at the very core and centre of a blaze of ruddy light, which streamed upon it; and which, being only light, was more alarming than a dozen ghosts, as he was powerless to make out what it meant, or would be at; and was sometimes apprehensive that he might be at that very moment an interesting case of spontaneous combustion, without having the consolation of knowing it. At last, however, he began to think that the source and secret of this ghostly light might be in the adjoining room, from whence, on further tracing it, it seemed to shine. This idea taking full possession of his mind, he got up softly and shuffled in his moccasins to the door.
The moment Robbo’s hand was on the handle, a strange voice called him by his name, and bade him enter. He obeyed.
It was the tactics room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and ceiling were so hung with red, from every part of which, bright gleaming red scarves glistened. The crisp red shirts and socks reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there and in easy state upon a couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see: who bore a glowing flare and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Robbo, as he came peeping round the door.
“Come in!” exclaimed the Ghost. “Come in and know me better, man!”
Robbo entered timidly, and hung his head before this Spirit. He was not the dogged Robbo he had been; and though the Spirit’s eyes were clear and kind, he did not like to meet them.
“I am the Ghost of Seasons Present,” said the Spirit. “Look upon me!”
Robbo reverently did so.
“You have never seen the like of me before!” exclaimed the Spirit.
“Never” Robbo made answer to it.
The Ghost of Seasons Present rose.
“Spirit,” said Robbo submissively, “conduct me where you will. I went forth last night on compulsion, and I learnt a lesson which is working now. To-night, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it.”
“Touch my robe!”
Robbo did as he was told, and held it fast.
How it came to pass neither Robbo nor you yourself could readily explain but clutching tight to the robe of this Spirit Robbo flew over many a North American stadium and his eyes were suddenly full of creative number tens, tricky strikers, players from the best leagues in Europe, World Cup winners, South American internationals, box to box midfielders and pacy wingers.
“Is there a peculiar magic in what you sprinkle from your flare?” asked Robbo.
“There is. My own.”
“Would it apply to any kind of team on this day?” asked Robbo.
“To any well coached. To a poor one most.”
“Why to a poor one most?” asked Robbo.
“Because it needs it most.”
“Spirit,” said Robbo, after a moment’s thought, “I wonder why you, of all the beings in the stadiums about us, should desire to cramp these player’s opportunities of innocent enjoyment.”
“I!” cried the Spirit.
“You would deprive them of their means of playing good football every seventh day, and sometimes in midweek” said Robbo. “Wouldn’t you?”
“I!” cried the Spirit.
“You seek to make players play too many games?” said Robbo? “And it comes to the same thing.”
“I seek!” exclaimed the Spirit.
“Forgive me if I am wrong. It has been done in your name, or at least in that of Season present,” said Robbo.
“There are some within this league of yours,” returned the Spirit, “who lay claim to know how to rotate players and how to manage the schedule, and who do their deeds with passion, pride, vanity and pragmatism in my name, who are as strange to me and all out kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not me.”
Robbo promised that he would and perhaps it was the pleasure the good Spirit had in showing off this power of his, or else it was his own kind, generous, hearty nature, and his sympathy with all good footballers, that led him straight to Robbo’s team; for there he went, and took Robbo with him, holding to his robe; and on the threshold of the training centre the Spirit smiled, and stopped to bless the place with the sprinkling of his flare.
Robbo was at first vexed to see his players standing around talking and not working on how best to defend set pieces but he soon allowed the goodwill of the Spirit to seep back into his heart and he listened with an almost fatherly ear to their chatter.
“What has ever got our precious Captain.” said Brek Shea. “And our wide player, Tiny Techera! And Hurtado warn’t as late last Christmas Day by half-an-hour!”
“Here’s Hurtado, Brek!” said a man with a strange haircut, appearing as he spoke.
“Here’s Hurtado, Brek!” cried the two young fullbacks Brett Levis and Jake Nerwinski. “Hurrah! There’s such attacking play today, Hurtado!”
“Why, bless your heart alive, my dear Hurtado, how late you are!” said Brek Shea, examining his haircut with ill-disguised confusion.
“I’d a deal of work to finish up last night,” replied Hurtado,”Robbo wanted me to work on tracking back.”
“Well! Never mind so long as you are come,” said Brek Shea. “Sit ye down on the bench where you belong!”
“No, no! There’s our Captain coming,” cried the two young fullbacks, who were everywhere at once. “Hide, Hurtado, hide!”
So Hurtado hid himself, and in came Kendall Waston, with Tiny Techera upon his shoulder. Alas for Tiny Techera, he was suffering from cramp and unable to walk”
“Why, where’s our Hurtado?” cried Kendall Waston, looking round.
“Not coming to training today,” said Brek Shea.
“Not coming!” said Kendall, with a sudden declension in his high spirits; for he had been Techera’s blood horse all the way from the car park. Not coming to training upon Christmas Day!”
Hurtado didn’t like to see him disappointed, if it were only in joke; so he came out prematurely from under the bench, and ran into his arms, while the two young fullbacks hustled Tiny Techera, and bore him off into the physio room, that he might rest a while.”
“And how did little Techera behave?” asked Brek Shea.
“As good as gold,” said Kendall, “and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful, sitting with cramp so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him always cutting inside this season, because he knew that was just what Robbo wanted.”
Kendall’s voice was tremulous when he told them this, and trembled more when he said that Tiny Techera was growing strong and hearty.
His active little cleats were heard upon the floor, and back came Tiny Techera before another word was spoken, escorted by Levis and Nerwinski; and then Tim Parker, and the two ubiquitous young fullbacks went to fetch the ball, with which they soon returned in high procession.
Such a bustle ensued that you might have thought a ball the rarest of all things; and the whole squad whooped with delight and proceeded to chase the ball around the field with never a thought for formation or structure.
“Oh, wonderful football!” Kendall Waston said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved during his captaincy. Brek Shea said that now the weight was off his mind, he would confess he had doubts about his first touch. Everybody had something to say about the game, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small game for such a large squad. It would have been flat heresy to do so. Any Whitecap would have blushed to hint at such a thing.
At last the game was all done, the nets were cleared, the players showered, and the locker room cleaned up. Then all the Whitecaps drew round the centre circle,
“A Merry Christmas to us all, my dears. God bless us!” Kendall Waston proposed.
Which all the team re-echoed.
“God bless us every one!” said Tiny Techera, the last of all.
He sat very close to his Captain’s side upon his little stool. Kendall held his tiny little hand in his, and wished to keep him by his side, and dreaded that he might be taken from him in an expansion draft.
“Spirit,” said Robbo, with an interest he had never felt before, “tell me if Tiny Techera will be drafted.”
“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “in the locker room, and a tiny pair of boots without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, Tiny Techera will be drafted to a more attacking team.”
“No, no,” said Robbo. “Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.”
“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to be drafted, he had better do it, and decrease the number of players who are a defensive liability.”
Robbo bent before the Ghost’s rebuke, and trembling cast his eyes upon the ground. But he raised them speedily, on hearing his own name.
“To Robbo!” said Kendall Waston; “I’ll give you Robbo, our coach!”
“Our coach indeed!” cried Brek Shea, reddening. “I wish I had him here. I’d give him a piece of my mind to feast upon, and I hope he’d have a good appetite for it.”
“My dear Brek,” said Kendall, “the players; Christmas Day.”
“It should be Christmas Day, I am sure,” said he, “on which one wishes health of such a stingy, counter attacking defensive coach as Robbo. You know he is, Kendall! Nobody knows it better than you do with all those aimless long balls from the back, poor fellow!”
“My dear Brek,” was Kendall’s mild answer, “Christmas Day.”
The players drank the toast after their coach . It was the first of their proceedings which had no heartiness. Tiny Techera drank it last of all, but he didn’t care two cents for it. Robbo was the coach of the team but the mention of his name cast a dark shadow on the pitch, which was not dispelled for full five minutes.
Then through the fog the church bell chimed three quarters and Robbo turned to the spirit “Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,” said Robbo, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe, “but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw!”
“It might be a foot, for the boot there is upon it,” was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. “Look here.”
From the foldings of its robe, it brought two academy prospects with wretched, abject, frightful, ball control. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.
“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.
Robbo started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine players and probably good in the locker room, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.
“Spirit! are they yours?” Robbo could say no more.
“They are MLS’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is pace over quality. This boy is athleticism over creativity. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is DEFEAT BY SITTING BACK AT HOME EVEN AGAINST POOR TEAMS, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards Robbo. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And bide the end.
Of a sudden the fourth official’s board appeared upon the touch-line with the number THREE all aglow.
Robbo looked about him for the Ghost, and saw it not. As the board ceased to vibrate, he remembered the prediction of Martyn Pert, and lifting up his eyes, beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him.