The team captain has no special status or privileges but has a degree of responsibility for the behaviour of the team. -Law 3, "The Players"
“What.” It wasn’t a question. There was no requisite rising of inflection at the end of the word. Instead the single syllable was so heavily laden with flat disbelief that had it been thrown into the harbour it would have sunk.
“You heard me. Franklin’s done his ACL. You’ll have to captain the rest of the season.”
“The rest of the season!” Crozier exploded, flinging a hand out in anger and narrowly missing smacking his knuckles against the rough concrete wall of the club office, a room which was really a spare utility closet but which had a small window and was therefore suitable for human habitation and not just broom storage, “you say that as though there’s been a previous part of the season to complement this so-called rest! It’s September, Thomas! How in the hell did he already hurt himself!”
“I heard he was having a family photograph taken and tripped over a piece of artificial scenery in the studio,” said Blanky with an utterly straight face. “Although don’t quote me on that. And don’t get yourself all het up about it, Francis. It’s either you or Fitzjames stepping into the breach, and if you opt for the latter I’m sending you to deliver him the happy news. It’s too early for me to deal with that inevitable crisis of confidence.”
Crozier scoffed. “Crisis of- he’d puff up like a peacock the second you told him. The man thinks he ought to be captain already, great self-important toff that he is.”
“Hm. I wonder.” Blanky eyed Crozier sharply but didn’t elaborate. “In any case, I’m telling you now so as far as I’m concerned it’s out of my hands.”
“That’s another thing,” said Crozier, calming down enough to latch onto another facet of the news, “why’s it that you’ve been told first? Surely I should be getting this directly from Franklin.”
“He’s in hospital. I was told by Sophia.” Blanky’s stare grew knowing. “She said that she’d been trying to get through to you but couldn’t manage it, so figured I was the next best conduit. Note, incidentally, that young Fitzjames was not her choice of messenger.”
“Oh.” Crozier, who had been studiously ignoring all calls, texts, and emails from Sophia Cracroft for the past month in a desperate bid to either restore some of his dignity or to leave her no option but to come to his home personally, preferably in the dead of night to throw regretful stones at his window, whichever came first, flushed. “Sophia. Right.”
Blanky, in a display of extraordinary self-control, did not roll his eyes. “Will I be seeing you at training tomorrow then? Or should I expect to start looking to Fitzjames for instructions how best to run around cones?”
“No no, I’ll do it. I’ll be there.” Crozier didn’t even know why he bothered answering. Blanky’s tone had his decision all marked out for him. “But you’d better expect a lot of delegating, Thomas.”
“As if I haven’t been keeping you and this club afloat for years,” Blanky scoffed. “You’d be dead in the water without me. You don’t have to tell me that.”
“Alright, alright. Show a bit of respect, I can still have you kicked out. There are better midfielders.”
“But are there better midfielders who’ll also trim the grass, paint the lines, and donate their disability cheques to get you bastards better boots? I think not.”
“One of these days I’m going to anonymously inform the government that you’ve been running this scam on them for years,” Crozier groused. “Disability my arse.”
Blanky kicked at Crozier’s shin amiably with his prosthetic leg. “If you deprive me of my weekly £40 I will come round in the night and slash your tyres. Captain,” he added with a certain amount of relish that, Crozier thought, was just not very sympathetic. For a man who claimed to be Crozier’s best mate Blanky was certainly taking a lot of joy out of the sudden and unpleasant development that Crozier would have to take responsibility for the nonsense being produced every week on the pitch by their as-of-yet-not-properly-renamed club, the squashed together remnants of Terror FC and Erebus Athletic. It was a Frankenstein creation born out of what were certainly the two most ill-fated sides in Sunday league history, if you asked Crozier. Which not many people did. But he made a point of repeating it every time he was forced into another stilted dinner party with people he hated, by a man who didn’t, Crozier was grimly certain, respect him in the slightest.
Just his luck that said man had now gone and had the audacity to put himself out of commission for the season, not even in a football-related incident. And in doing so, had put Francis Crozier in the unenviable position of command.
It was going to be a miserable season.
The next day was an unremarkable Friday: the sky was the same flat, low grey as it always was and the air had a sting of low tide about it when Crozier arrived at their spiky little pitch in the evening after work. This close to the sea the grass always grew short and tough, and the chain-link fence around the ground was more salt and rust than it was metal. The flat-roofed building which provided dressing rooms, office, and miscellany was hardly in better repair, and looked all the stranger for being painted in two different colours divided right down the middle, a hold-over from the old days when Terror and Erebus had been two separate clubs simply sharing a ground.
It was to this unapologetically two-toned building that Crozier went first. He unlocked it with his key -and wasn’t it strange but no matter how much he complained about Terror, Erebus, the Sunday league, football as an institution in general, life, he still got a little rush of proprietary pride every time he unlocked his club grounds with his key- and headed straight to the office. It was precisely the same as he and Blanky had left it the previous day but somehow it felt changed. Perhaps it was the knowledge that he was now the rightful occupant of the worn spinning chair behind the lopsided desk (made level with an ever-growing stack of folded takeaway menus as the floor of the building sank steadily deeper into the soft foundation), or more likely the relief that Franklin wouldn’t be making any outrageous decisions about formations anymore. Crozier didn’t care that defensive play was supposedly ‘anti-football’ these days; a dedicated passing game and relentless pressing only worked if you had a team that was good at passing and had the legs to run a full ninety without letting up. Which they decidedly did not.
No one else had yet arrived, which was how Crozier liked it. His favourite moments at the ground tended to be the ones in which he was entirely alone.
Alright, perhaps that wasn’t strictly true. But near enough.
He spent a mind-numbing twenty minutes filling out the paperwork for the match at the weekend, checking the line-up more against Goodsir’s text messages and the group WhatsApp than any sort of tactical plan -Heather was concussed, again, David Young had called in sick with something mysterious and vague- before trudging to the dressing room to change.
His shoes squeaked across the tiles as he made a beeline for his locker. The fluorescent light sizzled gently overhead.
He was overcome with the need for a drink. Hell. Training didn’t officially start for another thirty minutes and change, why not. Crozier fumbled in his tattered sports bag for the flask he keep guiltily in the side pocket but before he could unscrew the top he heard the screeching of the rusted door hinge and, after a wavering moment of indecision, shoved the flask back out of sight just as Thomas Jopson rounded the corner.
“Jopson.” Crozier blinked. “You’re here early.”
“Brought the kits.” Jopson nudged the large black bag he had slung over his shoulder. “I thought I’d get in early to put them away in everyone’s lockers.” Jopson had a part time job at a combination dry cleaners and launderette, and frequently volunteered to do the kits in bulk. Crozier wasn’t entirely certain if this was something he was allowed to do or if he had simply mastered the art of washing twenty-odd kits without the other employees noticing. It seemed suspiciously like a skill Jopson might actually have.
“You know you can just leave the bag in the dressing room and let everyone pick through it,” Crozier said without much hope that Jopson would take the suggestion. Jopson had never once in his life left a job half-done.
“I’m already here,” Jopson reasoned, proving Crozier’s point. “I might as well.” He grinned suddenly. “By the way. I hear I should be congratulating you.”
Crozier groaned loudly, with only a bit of theatrical exaggeration. “Oh God.”
“Captain Francis Crozier,” said Jopson with obvious enjoyment. “And never was there a man more deserving-”
“Jopson, you are one of the few people involved in this miserable club who don’t make me want to tear out my remaining hair. Let’s try and keep it that way, yeah?”
“Anything you say. Want me to iron your armband?”
Crozier threw a pair of rolled-up socks at him, which Jopson ducked easily. “Oh, go sort the laundry.”
“Yes sir, Captain sir.”
Nearly half an hour in and training was going about as well as it ever did, which was to say poorly. A few of the lads were half-heartedly running a shooting drill that involved quite a lot of jogging around the net to retrieve balls booted over the bar and into the concrete stand than not much actual goal-scoring. Tozer and the defence seemed to be more interested in something Goodsir was doing with tape to Billy Gibson’s leg than anything else and even Blanky, who could usually be counted on to try and wrangle a few five-on-five matches, was only talking animatedly to Jopson while knocking a ball back and forth without much flair.
Crozier skulked by a corner flag and hoped no one tried to accost him. Eventually he would have to start shouting and trying to get things going again, but if he could snatch a few extra moments of not having to come up with inane routines involving plastic cones and sweaty luminescent training bibs that hadn’t been laundered since the late nineties, then he would gladly take that opportunity.
In typical fashion it was Fitzjames who ruined this first class avoidance technique, spotting Crozier as he emerged from the dressing room, hair slightly damp and bundled into its customary ridiculous bun. Crozier made a valiant effort of hiding himself behind the flag post but Fitzjames must have been searching for him, because he made a quick sweep of the pitch, landed on Crozier, and immediately jogged over.
“Fuck,” muttered Crozier resentfully and not particularly quietly. Fitzjames had been late and for a wondrous period of time Crozier had thought he might not show at all. And now he was charging into Crozier’s personal airspace.
“I heard about Sir John,” were the first words out of Fitzjames’ mouth when he skidded up flashily. Crozier gave him what he thought of as a professional balance between a glare and a polite smile, though the actual result came out somewhat closer to a grimace of distaste. It was an expression he used on anyone in Sunday league whose knees weren’t yet shot to hell and back, but what he unleashed now was a particularly strong strain reserved for Fitzjames.
“Did you now.”
“Yes,” Crozier said stonily. “Family photography is always hell. That’s common knowledge.”
“Family photography? I thought it had something to do with a small dog and a folding chair.” Fitzjames frowned, but blustered on. “Does the rest of the team know yet? Are you going to tell them today?”
“I was planning on it.” No one had yet inquired after Franklin. Crozier frequently ran training already, when Sir John was prevented from joining in due to his myriad responsibilities. Many of which were no doubt crucially important to the continued existence of the United Kingdom as a whole. Crozier on the other hand, as an ill-tempered bachelor with not much to his name but sporadic contributions to Nature among a few less well-reviewed publications, never had anything better to do with his evenings.
“Sooner rather than later, I should think,” Fitzjames advised. “And maybe downplay how serious things look? We don’t want to dampen their spirits too much.”
“I’m the captain,” Crozier began, affronted. Never mind that hardly two hours ago he had been cursing the world for dumping this job on him. He’d be damned before he let James “Have-I-Mentioned-I-Played-For-England-U21” Fitzjames tell him what to do.
“I’m not disputing that. Good heavens, Francis. It’s only a suggestion.” Fitzjames raised his hands placatingly. “I am your vice-captain now. Like it or not.”
Decidedly not. But Crozier forcibly lowered his hackles. Fitzjames was irritating but this, at least, had been well-meant. “Sorry. That was unfair. I’ve been- on edge.”
Fitzjames nodded wisely. “It’s a difficult thing to lose our captain so early in the season.”
It certainly is, thought Crozier glumly, although he knew that Fitzjames was distressed because he enjoyed Franklin’s leadership, rather than because he was staring down the barrel of a whole eight months spent herding cats. Worse than herding cats. Cats didn’t talk back, or organise ill-fated karaoke nights, or show up on match day having forgotten their shin guards and then play an entire ninety minutes with their socks stuffed with cut up bits of pizza box unearthed from the skip around the corner and the referee glaring at the lumpy result with suspicion. Cats didn’t make Crozier’s life very, very difficult indeed.
Terror and Erebus Football Club, on the other hand, did.