ONCE upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was a football manager called Big Jim. He had everything a football manager could possibly want: A large black sports coat with his initials above the left breast, a Lexus saloon, a copy of Frank Sinatra’s Greatest Hits and a ready supply of chewing gum.
But Big Jim wanted more. And what he wanted more than anything was to win a trophy. Big Jim was the manager of Piddlesworth Academicals, and they hadn’t won anything for years.
Every day, when he had finished shouting at his players on the training ground, or shouting at the referee during a match, or waving his arms about on the touchline in a manner that no one understood or paid much attention to, Big Jim would walk past the empty trophy cabinet on the way back to his office, and give a little sigh.
“I wish Piddlesworth Academicals could win a cup,” he would say quietly to himself. “Any cup. Any cup at all. I’m not bothered what it is, as long as it’s big and shiny.”
One day, Big Jim was feeling very sad. His team had just lost 6-0 at home to their biggest rivals, Faffington Alexandra. To make things worse, the Piddlesworth captain had left his contact lenses at home again, and scored three own goals. At the end of the game, the fans booed and chanted: “Big Jim out!”
As Big Jim walked slowly back to his office, he bumped into his chairman, Mr. Longface, who looked at him sternly. “This can’t go on, Big Jim,” said Mr. Longface. “If we don’t beat Kajagoogoo Extraordinare next Saturday, I’m going to have to let you go.”
In his office, Big Jim put on his Frank Sinatra CD and looked out of the window at a small group of fans standing in the car park, shouting for him to be sacked. He thought about Kajagoogoo Extraordinare. Not only were they top of the league, but they also had the England centre-forward Bobby Nobbins playing for them. “We’ll never win,” said Big Jim, as Sinatra filled the room around him. “I’m finished.”
On his way out, he passed the trophy cabinet. To his great surprise, Big Jim saw there was some kind of trophy in there. It was only about the size of one of his big hands, but it was shiny and metal and had two handles and a lid.
He looked left and right to make sure nobody was watching, and then gently slid back the glass doors of the cabinet and lifted out the trophy. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. When had Piddlesworth won this? And how come he had never seen it before?
Big Jim couldn’t resist lifting the trophy above his head. He imagined roaring crowds chanting: “There’s only one Big Jim!” He imagined the players being physically strong enough to chair him off the pitch. He imagined the chairman giving him a slap on the back, and hinting at a pay rise. A pay rise! He imagined…
“Who goes there?”
Big Jim almost dropped the trophy. “Who’s that?”
“I’m up here,” said the voice. “Put me down gently, please. I am not used to being thrown around.”
Big Jim gently put down the trophy, and saw that the lid had come off. And he saw, inside the cup, a little man with craggy features and an unconvincing combover hairstyle. He was wearing a little black sports coat, with the initials FG stitched just above the left breast.
“Who are you?”
“I am the Football Genie,” said the little man inside the cup. “I am here to grant you one wish, and one wish only. I will grant you anything you desire, so choose carefully.”
Big Jim thought for a moment. Should he ask for a bigger coat? Or a new Lexus? Or even the entire Frank Sinatra musical collection? No. There was only one thing he wanted.
“I want to win every game I manage,” he said.
“Very well,” said the Football Genie. He started shouting “Come on” repeatedly, until his face went purple, and he waved his arms about frantically. And then, there was a puff of smoke. “The spell is complete.”
“So we’ll beat Kajagoogoo Extraordinare next Saturday?”
“And Flimsy Town the week after?”
“You beauty! You’ve just saved my job!”
“I must ask you one thing in return,” said the Football Genie.
“Anything. Anything at all.”
The Football Genie frowned. “You do not know what I am asking of you yet, Big Jim. I am starting something called a Respect campaign, to get players and managers to show referees a little more…”
“Respect,” Big Jim jumped in. “I can’t see that working.”
“Well I want you to lead it, Big Jim,” said the Genie. “You are about to become the most successful manager in the country, and I want you to set an example. So you must never criticise a referee in public again.”
Big Jim looked shocked. “What about linesmen?”
“You must not criticise them either.”
“The Professional Game Match Officials Board?”
“Never, never, never! I am starting to tire of your impertinence, Big Jim. Do you want this wish or not?”
“Yes, yes! Of course! OK! I promise I will never criticise match officials ever again.”
For the next month, Big Jim was true to his word. And so was the Genie. Piddlesworth beat Kajagoogoo Extraordinare and Flimsy Town and Atletico Carpet Stain and even Hades United. The Piddlesworth captain remembered his contact lenses, and even managed to score at the right end. The fans were chanting Big Jim’s name. Mr. Longface, whose face had been so long for so long, wore a beaming smile.
“Good news, Big Jim,” he said one day soon after the win over Hades. “You’ve won the Manager of the Month award. It’ll be presented on the pitch before the game against Arthritic Ramblers. And if you win that game, I’ll give you a big pay rise.”
Big Jim’s face lit up. “A trophy! At last, I’ve won a trophy!”
An annoying blond television presenter called Tim presented Big Jim with the award, then handed him the microphone to say a few words to the cheering crowd.
“I can’t say how happy I am with this,” said Big Jim. “It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. And the best thing is that we’ve done it even though we’ve had a few refereeing decisions go against us.”
Suddenly, there was a crash of thunder. The rain started to fall. Big Jim knew what he had said, and tried to backtrack… “I was only joking… just a bit of banter…” It was too late.
Arthritic Ramblers were bottom of the league. Their team had an average age of 75. Their manager had been clinically dead for seven years, and had to be propped up in press conferences by his assistant. But they made Piddlesworth look like amateurs, and won 8-0. The Ramblers fans, in between drinking coffee from their Thermos flasks and pointing out the architectural quirks of Piddlesworth’s main stand to each other, taunted Big Jim with chants of: “You’re getting sacked in the morning!”
Big Jim passed Mr. Longface in the corridor. His face was long again, and Big Jim knew better than to ask about that pay rise. When he got back to his office, he saw that his Frank Sinatra CD had disappeared. In his CD player instead was a Technotronic compilation album. Big Jim pressed play. The sound was unbearable, like someone scraping blackbirds down a blackboard. He switched it off.
“I suppose you think this is the curse.”
Big Jim recognised the Football Genie’s voice, and now saw that trophy from the cabinet, the one he had picked up after the Faffington defeat. It was on the floor in the corner of the room, taunting him, with the Genie peeping out of the top. “What curse, Genie?”
“The Manager of the Month curse. Every time a manager wins the award, and they lose their next game, they think it’s the curse.”
Big Jim looked sadly down at the floor. “It’s because I criticised the referees, isn’t it?”
“I hope you have learned your lesson, Big Jim. I hope you realise that it is wrong to criticise referees, that you should not blame them for your own team’s failings, that … oh, it’s no use. I can’t keep this up any longer.”
Big Jim looked puzzled. He always looked puzzled, but now he looked particularly puzzled. “What do you mean?”
The Football Genie climbed out of the trophy, and sighed. “I’m not really a Football Genie at all. I’m just a very tiny ex-centre-forward who can get any other work at the moment. So I go round clubs in this trophy and promise managers anything they want. And they always want to win … well, apart from the one who asked for a cut of that transfer de – er, actually, you don’t need to know about that.”
“So, it’s not just me, then?”
“No. You all want to win, so I tell you what you want to hear, and the self-belief it gives you inspires the team to victory for a few games, but it can’t go on forever, and managers started getting angry with me about this, so I had to come up with that flimsy caveat about not criticising referees.” The Football Genie looked out of breath, Big Jim noticed. And suddenly very, very old.
“So there’s no such thing as the Manager of the Month curse?”
“No,” said the Football Genie. “It’s just a case of your team’s form returning to normal after an exceptional spell. And teams don’t always lose after their boss gets the Manager of the Month award. Here, let me show you.”
The Football Genie gave Big Jim a DVD.
Last night’s final match: West Brom 1 Bolton 1
Commentator: Steve Bower
West Brom’s Roberto Di Matteo had been named Manager of the Month for September. But it wasn’t looking good when Johan Elmander gave Bolton the lead in the 64th minute.
“Is the Manager of the Month curse about to strike again?” asked Steve Bower.
No, as it turned out. James Morrison equalised with 12 minutes left from a cross by Peter Odemwingie, the Premier League’s Player of the Month.
Di Matteo, who always has a look of mild amusement on his face, looked mildly amused when Bower asked him about his award.
“You’re a Manager of the Month who hasn’t lost,” said Bower. “No curse.”
“Yes, I was very concerned about that,” replied Di Matteo, possibly with a hint of sarcasm.”
* * *
The Football Genie couldn’t reach the DVD player himself, and so asked Big Jim to turn it off.
“So you see, Big Jim, West Brom didn’t lose. There’s no curse. You didn’t lose 8-0 to a team of pensioners because of a curse. You lost because you were rubbish.”
Big Jim looked at the fixture list pinned to his office wall, and smiled. “You’re right,” he said. “We were rubbish! But if West Brom can get a draw – so can we! Faffington Alexandra again next week – bring it on!”
He didn’t see the Football Genie shake his head sadly as he climbed back into the trophy.
1. Fulham: 2 (2L: 2, 3L: 0)
2=. Bolton: 2 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
2=. Wolves: 2 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
4. Wigan: 2 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
5. Everton: 1 (2L: 2, 3L: 0)
6. Blackburn: 1 (2L: 1, 3L: 4)
7=. Sunderland: 1 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
7=. West Brom: 1 (2L: 2, 3L: 0)
9. Birmingham: 1 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
10. Newcastle: 1 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
11. Stoke: 0 (2L: 2, 3L: 2)
12. West Ham: 0 (2L: 2, 3L: 1)
13=. Chelsea: 0 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
13=. Tottenham: 0 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
15=. Aston Villa: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
15=. Blackpool: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
15=. Manchester City: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
15=. Manchester United: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
19=. Arsenal: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
19=. Liverpool: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
2L=On second last (West Ham 1 Fulham 1)
3L=On third last (Stoke 1 Blackburn 0)
(Teams are awarded one point every time they appear last on Match of the Day. Teams level on points are separated by the number of times they are on second last, then by the number of times they are on third last. Teams still level at the end of the season will be separated by the drawing of lots at a glittering ceremony in Delhi, hosted by Sepp Blatter, Tony Gubba, one or two athletes and an army of cleaners, with music from Lady Gaga dressed in a controversial outfit made entirely from sewage.)