The clip-clop of football boot studs on concrete echoed through the tunnel over the hum of distant crowd noise. A drenched team of players wearing black kits with gold trim plodded towards their dressing room. Not a word was uttered amongst them. All eyes were down except for one pair. Gunnar Magnusson, the number four – a six foot four stubbled Man of Steel lookalike – glared at the back of the number seven, Casemiro ‘Cas’ Velasquez – five six, tipping nine and a half stone with a solid meal in his stomach. Cas scraped his wet, mousey hair out of his eyes. He kept facing forward but his gaze involuntarily flickered in Gunnar’s direction. He felt the glare almost burning through his jersey.
As the team and some of the coaching staff filed into the dressing room, Cas made his way towards his locker area. Even in this gargantuan old stadium, the dressing room was somewhat modernised. ‘Lockers’ were now more like shallow, doorless wardrobes. As Cas was just about to reach his portion of the bench, a teammate’s crumpled shirt zipped past his feet. Its golden Spartan badge faced upwards. He did not look around to see who had hurled it.
Cas sat and slumped his head into his hands. He felt the bench to his right give. A moment later, he was jolted out of his personal darkness as something soft hit his hand, immediately followed by a jingle. A towel rested against his right hand and a set of Range Rover keys had dropped to the floor below. A large pair of feet wearing Copas stood by them. He scooped the keys up and, without looking to his right, set them back on the towel. Then he swivelled to his left and unlaced one of his boots. Beside him, the shirtless Gunnar picked up his towel and started scrubbing his hair dry, disgust etched deep into his face.
A yell came from a player having his knee examined by a physio on a treatment table in the middle of the room. ‘How many times have I fucking told you? I’m sick of you fannying around with your daft gadgets and your exercises. You don’t look like you’ve done a rep in your life and you keep telling me it’s gonna work. It fucking hasn’t. I want the real shit,’ said Krugg, loud enough for everyone to hear.
‘It is the real shit if you listen and do as I say,’ replied the physio, nudging his thick-lensed glasses back up his nose.
‘You do realise you work for us, don’t you?’
The physio nodded, resigned. ‘What, so the customer’s always right?’
‘There we go. You get it, Goggles,’ said Krugg, a smirk spread over his face.
The physio rubbed his smooth scalp for a moment as he thought, then reached into his treatment back and pulled out a vial and a syringe.
Krugg laid back, hands clasped behind his head, victorious. ‘There’s a good boy.’
Gunnar’s booming voice suddenly filled the room. ‘You call yourself a man, turning your back on me . . . on us . . . and pretending nothing’s happened? Say something, you little prick.’ He rose to his feet, towering over Cas, who had now turned away, frantically stuffing his clothes into his holdall. Something jingled as he forced the last items in.
‘This is on you, you spineless cunt.’
Wascoe, the number three, shouted over from across the room. ‘Gunnar! Tonight’s been bad enough. Leave it.’
Wascoe clammed up.
Gunnar walked to the centre of the floor and addressed the team. ‘We’d be champions right now if he’d done his job . . . fucking Little Sculptor . . . he’s infected this team. He’s turned a pack of winners lame, and you stick up for him? Fuck that.’
Cas, still in his full kit, now with trainers on and his boots in one hand, threw his holdall over his shoulder and scuttled towards the door. Gunnar, seeing this escape attempt, lunged towards Cas, grabbing the back of his collar and giving it a vicious yank. The second tug ripped the front open, exposing Cas’s skeletal chest. Gunnar spun the startled Cas around, deftly stepped his leg behind one of Cas’s and – with another pull of the shirt, which was now twisted around Cas’s neck – tossed him to the floor with a thud.
Wincing, and nursing his right rear ribs, Cas squinted. Rattled from the impact and flushed with adrenaline, his ears rang. Everything seemed at half-speed. Gunnar, almost foaming at the mouth, loomed large and was moving in to do some damage. Cas planted his feet and hands against the cold, hard floor and slid himself away. It was like a nightmare he could not wake himself from; as fast as he moved, he could see it was not fast enough as his attacker got closer still. He watched Gunnar shape up, like he had countless times before to smash a crossfield pass. The irony was that all he could do was ball up to protect himself. Yet after what seemed like an eternity, still no boot came. Like a sea turtle checking if a nearby shark was still lurking, Cas poked his head out of his hands. Wascoe and six other teammates were restraining the rabid Gunnar, who was trying to break through them with everything he had.
Glassy-eyed, Cas snapped out of his stupor, scrambled to his feet, clasped his bag and ran for the door.
‘You don’t deserve that shirt, you cocksucking bottlejob! I’ll make sure you never wear it again!’ bellowed Gunnar, still tussling with his other teammates.
Cas flung the door open. In front of him stood the team’s manager, Cedric Johnstone. Mister Johnstone, as Cas called him, was a portly man, hardened from decades in the game. It was as if his face wore a wrinkle for every dropped point.
‘Where d’you think you’re going, son?’
Cas sheepishly broke eye contact with him, brushed past him and sped away down the tunnel.
Cas darted along the tunnel, ignoring the shout, and nipped through a side door. His footsteps reverberated down a metal staircase before he navigated his way into a winding dark corridor lit only by red fire alarm LEDs. He fished for something out of the top of his bag. As he reached the stadium’s subterranean players’ carpark, he pulled out a set of keys.
He hurried towards a white Range Rover, paused, and glanced over each shoulder. Coast clear. He unlocked the car and checked again for good measure. Dropping the keys and boots, he took his holdall from over his shoulder, gripping it by its long strap with both hands.
Like a track-and-field hammer thrower, he swung the bag away and back then arced it up above his head and rotated it over and down – crruunncchh – smashing it down onto the bonnet of the car.
He dragged it off, revealing a hefty dent, and swung again. Crrruunncchhh. What he lacked in size he made up for with fury. He thrashed his bag down over and over until the bonnet barely hung on. Eventually, he dropped his bag. Exhausted, he bent forward, put his hands on his knees and sucked in some deep breaths. After a guttural sigh, he picked up a boot then stepped around the side of the car. Chsssshhhhh! He smacked the studs of the boot against the rear passenger window. It chipped but held. He wanted more. He thwacked his boot against it, harder each time, until at the fourth attempt it shattered, glass spraying all over. Eyes wide with the adrenaline, he dropped the boot and surveyed the damage. After gently pressing his lips closed, he inhaled slowly and deeply, held the breath for a few seconds and exhaled a sigh even louder than before.
Cas gathered up the boots and keys, opened the car and walked around to the driver’s door. He climbed in and threw his gear onto the back seat and started the engine. Beyond the battered bonnet, Cas sat expressionless. With his anger beaten out, or at least beaten down, he slowly pulled the car out of its space past a nearby black Range Rover with the license plate ‘GUNN4R 1’.