"It could be worse," Don said, after the players had trooped in and taken their seats. "We're only a goal down, and we have a man over!" he emphasized. Trying to lift the team's spirits. Around the dressing room, most of the players had sullen eyes and gazed mainly at the floor in front of them. These were players who saw their dream of playing a televised match slipping away from them. Even with a man over they hadn't carved out a single clean-cut opportunity in nearly twenty minutes of play.
Nathan, ever the optimist, chimed in. "We just need to make the ball do the work for us. They're tiring."
"He's right, you know." Jay found himself saying. The rest of the players looked up, surprised that the impetuous youth had spoken. "In for a penny, in for a pound," Jay thought as he continued, "We're a goal down, but we're still in it. The dream isn't dead, for all we know their keeper will slip over and pass me the ball straight from a goal-kick. We can't give in!"
Don flashed a wan smile at the pair, "They're right, we can, and will win this!"
A few more of the players were paying attention now. Hope etched onto their faces. "Listen up." Don said, "This is how we'll win the game. Jay, you're having no luck up top. I want you to drop deep in between their defense and midfield. You'll be our play-maker, I want everyone supplying Jay with the ball. Melton, you and Dan are going to have to help Nathan up front I want you cutting in from the wings."
Nathan looked at Jay with a wrinkled brow, "Jay, he's asking you to take some stick. You alright with that? They're going to kick lumps out of you."
Jay gulped noticeably, he knew he'd gotten under the Wrexham players skin, and Nathan was undoubtedly right. "Yeah," he paused, trying to compose himself, "Yeah, whatever it takes."
Don's face broke into a relieved smile, "You've nothing to be scared of, remember they have to play by the rules of the game."
Charles leaned slightly towards Jay, smirking. "Yeah, it'll be fine. No one ever waits until the referee isn't looking," he said with more than a hint of sarcasm.
Jay shifted uneasily in his chair. He was a little worried now, then the rest of the players as one burst into laughter. Charles slapped him on the shoulder, "Don't worry kid. We've got your back. Anyone messes with you will get a boot up their arse from me. We're a team!"
Jay felt it was a much more optimistic and cheerful Royston side which trooped out onto the pitch ten minutes later. The players ran onto the pitch and lined up with an enthusiasm that they'd lacked previously.
As the opposition took their positions, Jay noticed several of the Wrexham players eyeballing him. A particularly menacing looking midfielder with a shaved head pointed meaningfully at him, apparently 'forgive and forget' wasn't in their vocabulary.
Nathan laid the ball back to Jay straight from the get-go, and he dwelt on the ball for a second, enticing the opposition to close him down while the others pushed forward up the pitch. Making a mental note as to where his team-mates were moving to, Jay smirked deliberately at Wrexham's remaining striker as he advanced to close him down.
"Come and get some mate." Jay put his foot on the ball, taking a statue pose. He knew he was pushing it, but he wanted the player to commit to a challenge.
The opposition player, Walker according to his shirt, wasn't having any of it. He moved forward but didn't attempt to get close enough to make a challenge. Instead, the player stayed respectfully a few yards away, trying to close down the passing options. Wrexham might be down to ten men, but they were a goal up and they knew it. As far as they were concerned, Royston could have the ball the entire half, so long as the score stayed the same, they'd be happy.
Jay rolled the ball to the left, and then when he saw his opponent's weight shift to move in that direction, he flicked it right and surged forward. Walker, being a striker, failed to read the move. Jay was past him and moving up the pitch before his opponent even knew he'd made a mistake.
Pushing upfield, Jay's progress made the Wrexham players choose between putting pressure on the ball or covering their opposite numbers. Driving to the center-right of the pitch he headed deliberately between two midfielders, the opposition players looked at each other confused as to who had the job of dealing with him.
"Now!" Dan cried as he ran beyond the indecisive Wrexham winger. Striking the ball firmly, Jay lifted it down the sideline towards the sprinting player.
Dan ran onto the pass. He had to sprint to reach it, but just managed to keep the ball in play. His touch was heavy, though, failing to keep it close. This allowed the Wrexham right-back to slide in, taking the ball and clearing the Royston winger off his feet. Dan fell heavily into one of the billboards surrounding the pitch.
“You dirty bastard," Dan hollered. Smirking, Carrington, the Wrexham player, blew a kiss as he retreated into position. Nathan ran over and quickly restrained Dan before things got totally out of hand. This match was starting to have a definite edge to it.
The referee didn't rush the taking of the throw, sensibly giving the players a chance to calm down before play restarted. When it did, Luke Chapman received the ball and laid it backward towards Jay, who was once again lurking in the center of the pitch. As he drove upfield, the Wrexham players backed off, content to cover passes.
This time though Jay wasn't looking for support, he ran directly upfield gaining speed as he dribbled the ball loosely in front of him, one of the centerbacks finally snapped, coming forward to intercept his run. Jay didn't even try and beat him with skill, instead, he knocked the ball past him and pushing his muscles to their limit he sprinted forward aiming to retrieve the ball on the other side of the player.
The defender stepped across his path, sticking his knee out to ensure that there was no way through. The collision hurt, Jay rolled on the floor twice and waited for the pain to subside so he could catch his breath.
Slightly Bruised Ribs
Effects: -500 Condition, -3 Concentration
As he lay there, a shadow loomed over him. Peason, the Wrexham defender who'd cleaned him out, smiled as he reached a hand out. "Had enough yet?"
Jay grasped the proffered hand and forced himself to smile back, "Mate, I've hardly started."
The referee watched the interaction, concern creasing his brow. The podgy man in black looked nervous. He was only a part-timer and appeared to be seriously reconsidering how he used his Saturday afternoons.
Charles ran up and handed Jay the ball. "Holding up ok?" he queried.
"Never better," Jay smiled reassuringly, doing his best to ignore the butterflies in his stomach and the aching bruises on his ribs. Taking the ball he placed it down and looked from the wing into the box. The now-familiar rainbow projected towards the opposing goal. He held up two hands, indicating it'd be a cross to the far post and then took a short run-up.
The ball flew fast and high, swirling a little in the air as the wind took it. "Damn," it had drifted a little further towards the goal than he'd planned. The Wrexham keeper leapt with Nathan, and brushed the Royston forward aside he plucked the ball from the air easily.
Play ebbed and flowed. Royston's extra man stretched their opponents and gave them more dominance. When they didn't have the ball, it was easier for them to close the Wrexham players down, and in possession, they had far more time to find an outlet for their passes.
As the game passed the midpoint of the half, Jay felt the pressure to score laying heavier upon his shoulders. His team supplied him the ball frequently, and he thought he was constructive with his passing, but Royston remained a goal behind.
Charles slapped him on the shoulder as they waited for their opponents to retrieve the ball and take a throw-in, "You're doing fine, kid. Keep going. They're getting tired." Jay nodded, trying to retain the aura of someone confident that the good guys would win out in the end. He was well aware though that this wasn't the movies, and in real-life good guys generally came last.
Wrexham brought the ball upfield, passing crisply. As it came infield though, Jay saw the body position of the winger as looking up. Able to anticipate the pass, he darted forward and intercepted the ball, bringing it under control as he did so. Wrexham desperately tried to recover as he drove forward. Royston's opponents had been caught on the break, and Jay meant to make them pay for it. He looked up, sure enough Nathan was marked in the middle of the pitch. On the left, however, he could see Melton's legs pumping frantically as the skinny winger angled a run towards the opposition box.
A Wrexham player slid brutally towards him, Jay ignored the challenge and hefted the ball towards Melton. Then his leg exploded in pain as the opponent's studs dug into his calf, and he corkscrewed to the floor.
Minor Calf Injury
Effects: -5 Pace
As he lay on the floor, he saw Royston’s winger surge into the box. Melton attempted to bring the pass under control, but mistimed his touch badly. To the goalkeeper's relief, the ball ricocheted off Melton’s shin and behind for a goal kick. Another chance was gone.
Jay struggled to his feet and stretched, testing his calf to make sure it could still flex properly. The referee didn't even appear to have noticed the challenge, and by now the culprit was long gone. The only evidence of the crime being the red stud marks showing in his calf.
The Wrexham keeper had attempted to take the goal kick quickly with the intent of catching Royston on the break. Behind him, Kyle Davison jumped quickly, ensuring that nothing of the sort occurred, his header directed straight back to Jay.
Instantly a Wrexham player was on him, pressing hard. Jay angled away from the player and towards the sideline, trying to give his team-mates a chance to find space. The opposition player slid in, studs showing. This time, however, Jay was ready springing lithely into the air as he hurdled the outstretched boot and kept going.
His heartbeat sounded loudly in his ears as he continued down the wing. He checked his peripheral vision, watching carefully for approaching players. The only person closing him down was Carrington. The Wrexham right-back, was angling in trying to make sure Jay couldn't cut in towards goal. That was fine with Jay, he'd seen Nathan and Dan heading into the box. He headed for the byline without slowing down, blowing the right-back away as he tried and failed to keep pace.
Connecting with the ball as it reached the byline, Jay lifted it high into the box, hoping one of his team-mates could connect with it. There was no way he could slow down in time, and he plowed straight into and over an advertising board, landing hard on his arse, much to the amusement of the supporters near him.
The ball flew true and Nathan connected strongly with the cross. Flying in headfirst the big man connected solidly with it before the keeper could get there. Unfortunately, he aimed it downward, and it smacked hard into the keeper's gut. At the ball bounced back out into the area, both Nathan and the keeper looked around wildly, trying desperately to scramble back and reach it.
Neither could do anything, however, before Melton ghosted late into the area. The player made amends for his earlier mistake striking the ball sweetly with his instep. It blew straight past the floundering keeper and nestled into the bottom left corner.
One all! The game was back in the balance. Jay scrambled to his feet, thoughts of the aches and pains he'd endured had disappeared as adrenaline rushed through his body, they could win this!
Melton obviously thought so too. The winger didn't hang around after scoring, he followed the ball into the net and snatched it up. Royston were on the up, and the team were desperate to keep the momentum going.
Wrexham were far less enthusiastic. Their team trudged wearily back to the center circle. Kicking off, they played the ball backward, passing it between themselves as they tried to wait out the remaining few minutes of the match.
Royston pressed as a team, and eventually, Nathan forced a wild clearance downfield. The crowd could be seen checking their watches, and Jay knew full-time must be getting close.
"Get it down-field," cried one of the Royston supporters as the team moved forward for one last attack. Kyle looked to lump it back towards the Wrexham penalty area. The ball was heavy, high, and not too pretty. A defender got under it heading it back out of the area. Against all the odds one of the Red’s midfielders managed to get under it.
He ran upfield with the ball, sensibly not attempting to head through the Royston defenders towards the goal but simply heading for the corner flag. He allowed himself to be herded right into the corner and then played the ball behind off Harold.
Only two of the Wrexham team were in the box when the subsequent corner was taken, it went short, and again they stood shielding the ball, protecting it and wasting time. This charade was repeated twice more before the ball finally went behind off one of the Wrexham players, and Royston won a goal-kick.
Unfortunately, by then it was too late. When Tom launched the goal kick upfield, the referee blew for full-time.
Jay fell to his knees, he didn't know how to feel. On the one hand, they'd played a team from a higher division and forced a draw. On the other hand, they'd drawn a match they might have won. Royston had been so close to making it into the first round proper. Now the team had to endure another ninety-minutes against this bunch. This time, deep in Wales.