It’s Christmas Eve! In the final installment of our Advent Calendar series, Dan Burke retells a classic Christmas tale with a twist…
Once upon a time, old Thaksin Shinawatra – former prime minister of Thailand, “human rights abuser of the worst kind” and presently, chairman of Manchester City Football Club – sat busy in his office.
The day was as cold as Thaksin’s frozen assets and he could hear the people in the corridor outside go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts. The clock had only just gone three, but in East Manchester it was quite dark already – it had not been light all day.
“A merry Transfer Deadline Day, brother. God save you!” cried a cheerful voice. It was that of Garry Cook, the club’s CEO, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.
“Bah!” said Thaksin, “Humbug!”
“Transfer Deadline Day a humbug!” said Garry. “You don’t mean that, I am sure.”
“I do,” said Thaksin. “Merry Transfer Deadline Day! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? The club is poor enough.”
“Come, then,” returned Garry gaily. “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”
Thaksin having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said “Bah!” again; and followed it up with “Humbug.”
“Don’t be cross!” said Garry.
“What else can I be,” returned the deposed ex-politician, “when I live in such a world of fools as this? What’s the Transfer Window to you but a time for buying players without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in it through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will,” said Thaksin indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Transfer Deadline Day’ on his lips, should be boiled in his own Tom Yum, and buried with a stake of yellow ribbon through his heart. He should!”
“Don’t be angry, Thaksin. Come and watch Sky Sports News with us tomorrow.”
Thaksin said that he would see him – yes, indeed he did. He went the whole length of the expression, and said that he would see him in that extremity first.
“I am sorry, with all my heart, to find you so resolute” said Garry. “We have never had any quarrel, so a merry Transfer Deadline Day to you!”
“Good afternoon Garry,” said Thaksin.
“And come on United…I mean…City!”
“Good afternoon!” thundered Thaksin.
Cook left the room without an angry word, notwithstanding. He stopped at the outer door to bestow the greetings of the season on two other people as they passed him. They were Arabian gentlemen, pleasant to behold, and now stood, with their hats off, in Thaksin’s office. They had books and papers in their hands, and bowed to him.
“Manchester City Football Club, I believe,” said one of the gentlemen, referring to his list. “Have I the pleasure of addressing Mr Shinawatra?”
Thaksin regarded the men suspiciously.
“I am Khaldoon Al Mubarak,” continued the gentleman “and this is His Royal Highness Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, minister of presidential affairs and member of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi.”
“Never heard of you,” replied Thaksin curtly. “Now what do you want?”
“We would like to make an offer to buy your club,” said Khaldoon, taking up a pen. “We’ve done some research and we see great potential in Manchester City and its fanbase. We believe that given time and the right level of investment, we can turn this club into one of the major powerhouses in world football.”
“Are there no other clubs with great potential?” asked Thaksin.
“Plenty” said Khaldoon, laying down the pen again.
“Well perhaps you should take your offer to one of them instead,” said Thaksin.
“We feel our offer is more than reasonable,” said Khaldoon, scribbling out an eight figure sum and placing it on Thaksin’s desk. “And we’d like to begin investing in the club immediately with the purchase of at least one world class footballer before the Transfer Window closes tomorrow night.”
“Pah! World class footballers at Manchester City?” snorted Thaksin. “Fat chance.”
“Of course, we’d be more than happy to let you oversee the takeover in an advisory role. How does ‘Honorary Club President’ sound?” returned Khaldoon.
“How about nothing!” Thaksin replied.
“You wish to be anonymous?”
“I wish to be left alone,” said Thaksin. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer.”
“But Mr Shinawatra,” – this time it was Sheikh Mansour’s turn to speak – “We’re aware of the financial and political difficulties you are presently faced with, and of the potential implications these difficulties could have on the future of the club. Don’t you think now would be a perfect time for you to relinquish your ownership and allow us to take Manchester City to the next level? Don’t you think those fans out there deserve better?”
The Sheikh gestured out of the window towards a small group of people milling around outside the main entrance to the City of Manchester Stadium, who’d shown up hoping to catch a glimpse of a mystery “Brazilian international” they’d heard was on the verge of joining the club.
“It’s not my business,” Thaksin returned. “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must attend to the business of finalising the free transfer of somebody named Glauber Berti. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”
Seeing clearly that it would be useless to pursue their point, the gentlemen withdrew. Thaksin returned to his labours with an improved opinion of himself, and in a more facetious temper than was usual with him.
Later, old Thaksin took his melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy tavern; and having read all the newspapers, and beguiled the rest of the evening with his calculator, went home to bed.
Dressed in his fine silk pyjamas and tucked up tightly in beneath the covers, Thaksin finished the last remnants of his customary cup of Horlicks and gave one final thought for the day to the many problems faced by both himself and his football club, before turning out the light and closing his eyes.
But no sooner had he begun to drift off to sleep when he was awoken with a start by an unbearably loud racket which, if he wasn’t mistaken, sounded uncannily like chains being scraped across granite. He sat up, switched on the light and was horrified to encounter the figure of a man at his bedside.
Except this was no man, not anymore.
“How now!” said Thaksin, caustic and cold as ever. “What do you want with me?”
“Much!” replied the ghostly apparition.
“Who are you?”
“Ask me who I was.”
“Who were you then?”
“In life I was Peter Swales, chairman of Manchester City Football Club.”
“Mercy!” said Thaksin. “Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?”
“Man of the worldly mind!” replied the ghost, “do you believe in me or not?”
“I do,” said Thaksin. “I must. But why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?”
“It is required of every man,” the ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world – oh, woe is me! – and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”
The spectre raised a cry, shook its chain and wrung its shadowy hands.
“You are fettered,” said Thaksin, trembling. “Tell me why?”
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”
Thaksin trembled more and more.
“Is…is this about my rendition of ‘Blue Moon’ in Albert Square?” Answered Thaksin. “I swear, I never knew I was tone deaf!”
“Hear me!” cried the ghost. “My time is nearly gone.”
“I will,” said Thaksin. “But don’t be hard upon me! Don’t be flowery, Swales! Pray!”
“You will be haunted,” resumed the ghost, “by Three Spirits.”
Thaksin’s countenance fell almost as low as the third tier of English football.
“I…I think I’d rather not,” said Thaksin.
“Without their visits,” said the ghost, “you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first tonight, when the bell tolls one.”
And with that, the ghost was gone. Thaksin tried to say “Humbug!” but stopped at the first syllable. And being, from the emotion he had undergone, or the fatigues of the day, or his glimpse of the Invisible World, or the dull conversation of the ghost, or the lateness of the hour, much in need of repose; went straight to back to bed, and fell asleep upon the instant.
Thaksin sat up with a jolt. The display on the digital alarm clock at his bedside read 01:00, the hour the ghost of Swales had warned him to expect his first visit. For a moment, nothing happened, and Thaksin began to wonder if it had all been a ghoulish dream, when suddenly a bright light filled the room and there before his very eyes appeared a spectre.
It was a strange figure – like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man. It was dressed in a retro Umbro tracksuit and on its head, a flat cap barely concealed a mop of fiery ginger hair, while its feet were adorned with a pair of gleaming white football boots.
“Are you the spirit, sir, whose coming was foretold to me?” asked Thaksin.
The voice was high-pitched and squeaky.
“Who, and what are you?” Thaksin demanded.
“I am the Ghost of City’s Past.”
It put out its strong hand as it spoke, and clasped Thaksin gently by the arm.
“Rise. And walk with me.”
As the words were spoken, they passed through the wall, and found themselves standing in the midst of a crowd of noisy, excitable football supporters. Thaksin felt dazed and confused as he struggled to comprehend his new surroundings. They were inside a large stadium where a football match was taking place, and everyone around them had moustaches.
“Where on God’s green earth are we?” shouted Thaksin against the din.
“Wembley Stadium,” said the ghost. “City are playing Tottenham Hotspur in the 1981 FA Cup final replay.”
“Good Heaven!” said Thaksin, clasping his hands together, as he looked about him. “Why have you brought me here?”
“Look” said the ghost, pointing towards the pitch.
Thaksin did as he was told, and looked up just in time to see a dark haired, bearded man dressed in white receive the ball on the edge of the penalty area. The man drifted into the box, waltzing past one, then two, then three blue shirted defenders as he bore down on goal.
“Why don’t they just tackle him?” asked Thaksin to the ghost, who shrugged its shoulders. “Tackle him you idiots! He’s going to score!”
“They can’t hear you,” said the ghost. “Nobody can.”
The hirsute man dropped his shoulder once more, leaving one final City defender for dead before slotting the ball into the net and wheeling away in celebration. The moustachioed men and women around Thaksin slumped in despair.
“That was horrible,” said Thaksin. “I hope I never have to see a replay of that goal ever again.”
“Come,” said the ghost. “Let us go on.”
The ghost again took Thaksin by the arm and before he knew what had happened, he found himself inside another football stadium where another match was taking place.
“Where are we now?” asked Thaksin.
“Maine Road” squeaked the ghost. “City are drawing 2-2 with Liverpool on the final day of the 95/96 season and need to win if they’re going to avoid relegation from the Premiership.”
Thaksin looked towards the pitch, where a group of blue shirted players were taking the ball towards the corner.
“What are they doing wasting time in the corner then?” said Thaksin. “Don’t they know they need to win?”
“This is Manchester City,” said the ghost. “This is what they do.”
“But they can’t be relegated, it could take them years to come back from that!” cried Thaksin. “Someone needs to warn them!”
With that, Thaksin broke away and raced down the steps towards the pitch. He hurdled the advertising hording and sprinted down the touchline in the direction of the corner flag.
“Stop wasting time you fool!” he screamed at the player keeping the ball by the corner flag. “A draw isn’t good enough, you need to score again!”
“It’s no use,” said the ghost, who’d magically appeared at his side. “They can’t hear you and even if they could, their fate has already been sealed.”
Thaksin let out an exacerbated groan.
“I have one more thing to show you,” said the ghost, as he lead Thaksin away.
The next thing he knew, Thaksin found himself inside another stadium, this one much smaller than the others.
“What ghastly place is this?” he said.
“Welcome to Bootham Crescent,” said the ghost. “Home of York City.”
“York City?” replied Thaksin, confused. “Who the heck are York City?”
“The year is 1998. City are about to be beaten 2-1 and slump to 12th in English football’s third tier, their lowest ever league position.”
“But how can this be?” remarked Thaksin. “How can a club go from competing in the FA Cup final at the beginning of the 1980s to this?”
“You’ll find out,” replied the ghost. “Soon enough.”
“Spirit!” said Thaksin in a broken voice, “remove me from this place.”
“I told you these were shadows of the things that have been,” said the ghost. “They are what they are, do not blame me!”
“Leave me! Take me back. Haunt me no longer!”
Thaksin was conscious of being exhausted, and overcome by an irresistible drowsiness; and, further, of being in his own bedroom. Barely did he have time to reel to bed, before he sank into a heavy sleep.
It was impossible to tell whether he’d been asleep for minutes, hours or days but when he was awoken by the sound of a distant, cackling laugh emanating from outside his walls, Thaksin noted that the time was 01:00, just as it had been before.
“How can this be!” exclaimed Thaksin, to himself. “Was it all just a dream?”
The sound of the distant, thundering cackle grew louder and louder, as if nearing closer and closer, confirming it had definitely not been a dream. Suddenly, without warning, something burst though the wall of Thaksin’s room, shattering the bricks and mortar to smithereens.
“What is the meaning of this!?” yelled Thaksin as he leapt out of bed and cowered in a corner.
When the dust had settled, Thaksin dared to glance up at its creator and was able make out the shape of a creature. It was like a man, but the fattest, most humongous man he had ever laid eyes upon. It had wild, bushy eyebrows and was wearing nothing but a pair of boxer shorts, over which flowed layer upon layer of flab.
“Two old maids on a beach,” growled the lummox. “Streaker ran past. One had a stroke, the other couldn’t reach.”
The creature let out another cackle, which made Thaksin’s bones shudder beneath his skin.
“Who are you and what do you want with me?” demanded Thaksin.
“I’m the f*cking Ghost of City’s f*cking Present,” replied the creature. “And I’ve been sent to show you the error of your ways. Come on, let’s get on with it.”
With that, the creature turned and left the room via the hole in the wall from whence it had entered, muttering a racial slur as it went. Thaksin rose, straightened out his pyjamas and timidly followed.
Thaksin was enshrouded by a bright light beyond the wall, and when his eyes finally adjusted, he found himself standing beside the ghost in the middle of a field. In front of them a group of men stood huddled together, some of whom Thaksin recognised as members of City’s first team squad.
“Where are we?” asked Thaksin.
“Carrington training ground.” replied the ghost gruffly.
“This is the training ground?” said Thaksin. “This isn’t a facility befitting of a top level football club!”
A grey haired man approached the group.
“I know her!” exclaimed Thaksin. “Isn’t that Pat Butcher from Eastenders?”
“No, it’s Mark Hughes, City’s manager,” said the ghost. “Now shut up and listen.”
“Right guys,” said Hughes to the players. “Now obviously we’ve got a big game coming up which we obviously want to win, and we obviously need to be a bit more dynamic, so let’s not bother with defending today and get straight into some shooting practice. Oh yeah, did I mention I used to play for Barcelona?”
“This man is an idiot,” said Thaksin. “Who hired him? I must remember to sack them.”
“Don’t you remember?” replied the ghost. “You did.”
The players broke away from their huddle and began taking shots at one of the goals. Most of the shots flew wide or over the bar, some of them didn’t even make it as far as the goal. One player in particular was especially poor.
“Who’s that?” asked Thaksin.
“That’s Jo,” answered the ghost. “Our new £17 million signing from CSKA Moscow.”
“Seventeen million!” replied Thaksin, stunned. “But he’s terrible!”
“If you think that’s bad, you probably won’t want me to tell you we can’t even afford to pay for him” said the ghost.
“What a mess” sighed Thaksin.
“Come on, you’ve seen enough” said the ghost, as he grabbed Thaksin by the arm and led him away.
The next thing Thaksin knew, he was inside what appeared to be a medical treatment room.
“What are we doing here?” he asked.
“Here he comes now.” replied the ghost.
The door to the room opened and in hobbled a young, blonde man on crutches.
“I know this boy,” said Thaksin
“Michael Johnson,” replied the ghost. “The new Colin Bell and City’s only hope. Problem is, the poor b*stard can’t stay fit to save his life.”
“God bless us every one!” wheezed Johnson, as he hauled himself onto a stretcher.
“Spirit,” said Thaksin, with an interest he had never felt before,”tell me if Michael Johnson will ever recover from his injuries.”
“I see a long lay-off,” replied the Ghost, “alcoholism, depression, and eventually, premature retirement.”
“No, no,” pleaded Thaksin. “Oh, no, kind spirit. Say he will be spared.”
“Come on, it’s time to go.” The ghost took Thaksin by the arm and led him out of the room.
Thaksin felt thoroughly fed up by now, and was more than a little irritated to hear the sound of laughter on the other side of the door. When he lifted his head, he found himself in a bright room bedecked with yellow ribbons, with the spirit standing smiling by his side, looking at Mr and Mrs Garry Cook with approving affability.
“Ha, ha!” laughed Garry. “Ha, ha, ha!”
“He said that Transfer Deadline Day was a humbug, as I live!” cried Garry. “He believed it too.”
“More shame for him, Garry.” said Mrs Cook, indignantly.
“He’s a comical old fellow,” said Garry, “that’s the truth: and not so pleasant as he might be. However, his offenses carry their own punishment, and he’s a great guy to play golf with.”
“I’m sure he is very rich, Garry,” hinted Mrs Cook. “At least you always tell me so.”
“What of that, my dear?” said Garry. “His wealth is of no use to him. He don’t do any good with it. He don’t make himself comfortable with it. He hasn’t the satisfaction of thinking — ha, ha, ha! — that he is ever going to benefit the club with it!”
“I have no patience with him,” observed Mrs Cook.
“A merry Transfer Deadline Day to the old man, whatever he is,” said Garry. “He wouldn’t take it from me, but may he have it, nevertheless!”
With that, the whole scene passed off in the breath of the last word spoken by his CEO; and Thaksin and the spirit were again upon their travels.
Thaksin found himself back in his bedroom, alone. He looked about him for the fat ghost, and saw it not. The beep of the alarm clock by his bedside startled him, and as he observed that the time was once again 01:00, he remembered the prediction of old Swales, and lifting up his eyes, beheld a solemn phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him.
The phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched claw. But for this it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night, and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded.
“I am in the presence of the Ghost of City Yet To Come?” said Thaksin.
The spirit answered not, but instead pulled back its hood, revealing the face beneath.
This was not and had never been a man, but a beast.
“You’re a…wolf?” asked Thaksin.
Thaksin was correct, but this was no ordinary wolf, for its fur was not brown or black, but a strange shade of blue.
Although well used to ghostly company by this time, Thaksin feared the silent wolf so much that his legs trembled beneath him, and he found that he could hardly stand when he prepared to follow it.
“Ghost of the Future!” he exclaimed, “I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart. Will you not speak to me?”
It gave him no reply. The claw was pointed straight before them.
“Lead on,” said Thaksin. “Lead on. The night is waning fast, and it is precious time to me, I know. Lead on, spirit.”
The phantom moved away as it had come towards him. Thaksin followed in the shadow of its dress, which bore him up, he thought, and carried him along.
Thaksin’s nostrils were suddenly flooded with the smell of sweat and Vicks Vaporub. When he came to his senses, a found himself and the ghostly wolf in the corner of a dressing room. Around them sat a group of sullen, dejected looking men, some of whom he recognised as the same City players he’d watched on the training field earlier.
The dressing room door opened and in walked none other than Garry Cook.
“Well, I hope you’re ashamed of yourselves,” said Garry, addressing the players. “Getting relegated last season was one thing, but losing 10-1 to Huddersfield in the first game of this one and my first game as manager is something else entirely! I always said you were a bunch of bottlers!”
A furious quarrel broke out between the players and their manager. Insults were traded, accusations were made, and all of a sudden, somebody grabbed Michael Johnson’s crutch and gave Cook an almighty whack over the head with it.
A miniature riot ensued with punches being thrown in all directions and Thaksin cowered in a corner. When he was finally brave enough to look up, it was just in time to see the phantom wolf creeping out of the dressing room door. Thaksin hauled himself to his feet, battled his way through the mayhem and closed the door behind him as he left.
He suddenly found himself standing in the centre circle of a gigantic, empty football stadium. He looked about him and noticed that the seats in the stands were all red.
“This is Old Trafford isn’t it?” said Thaksin. “Why are we here?”
The ghost said nothing as it pointed up towards the stands. Thaksin gazed upwards and saw a banner draped over one of the railings. It read ’50 YEARS’.
“But…I don’t understand,” said Thaksin. “Do you mean to tell me that City’s trophyless run will extend to half a century? Without so much as a solitary Carling Cup?”
The ghost didn’t respond, and before he knew what had happened, Thaksin found himself inside yet another football ground. It was tiny and delapidated and though a match was clearly about to take place, the stands were mostly empty of spectators.
“What is this hell hole?” asked Thaksin.
“Welcome to the Holland’s Pies Stadium,” boomed a voice over the PA system “for today’s Conference North fixture between Manchester City and Alfreton Town.”
“Conference North!” exclaimed Thaksin. “No, I don’t believe it. I won’t believe it!”
A man and a young boy appeared at the side of him.
“When I were a lad this team were in the Premier League you know.” said the man to the young boy.
“I hate it here dad,” said the young boy. “Can’t you take me to watch Newcastle instead?”
“Aye, next time.” said the man. “That could have been us you know. That Sheikh wanted to buy City but he bought Newcastle instead and now look at ‘em, champions of Europe! Wanna know who I blame? Thaksin Shinawatra. He ruined this great club and I hope he rots in hell!”
“Please!” said Thaksin. “I couldn’t have known it would come to this! Please forgive me, I know not what I do!”
Thaksin’s plea fell on deaf ears, and when he looked around he noticed the ghostly wolf had already moved away.
“Ghost of the Future!” shouted Thaksin in pursuit. “If this is the fate that will befall my club then tell me, what will happen to me?”
Thaksin suddenly found himself inside a cramped, dank room, the only door to which was barred shut.
“What is the meaning of this?” he asked.
The wolf pointed and Thaksin turned to find an old man sitting on a bed, staring into space. The man seemed senile, demented and, Thaksin noticed, looked a lot like him.
“Is…is that I?” asked Thaksin, but the wolf, of course, said nothing.
The walls of the prison cell were covered in etched lines, marking out the years its inhabitant had been incarcerated. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty five.
“Twenty five years in prison!” cried Thaksin. “Please, anything but that!”
At that moment, the old man on the bed coughed, spluttered, breathed his final breath, keeled over and died.
“No, spirit! Oh no, no!”
Thaksin fell at the phantom’s feet.
“Spirit!” he cried, tightly clutching at its robe, “hear me. I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!”
Thaksin’s head dropped to his hands and he wept for what seemed like a long time. When he finally opened his eyes, to his joy and relief he found he was no longer inside the prison cell, but back in his own bedroom, alone.
“I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!” Thaksin repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. “The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. Oh Peter Swales!”
Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head.
“What’s today?” cried Thaksin, calling downward to a boy in a City shirt.
“Eh?” returned the boy, with all his might of wonder.
“Whats today, my fine fellow?” said Thaksin.
“Today?” replied the boy. “Why, Transfer Deadline Day.”
“It’s Transfer Deadline Day!” said Thaksin to himself. “I haven’t missed it. The spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can. Hello, my fine fellow!”
“Alright.” returned the boy.
“Go and fetch Garry Cook!” said Thaksin. “Tell him to summon Sheikh Mansour of the United Arab Emirates, post haste! We’ve got work to do!”
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Written by Dan Burke