(….Continuation from part 1 of this tale….)
The Chelsea Under-17s were facing the Watford Under-17s in a crucial FA Youth Cup quarter-final encounter.
With the former trailing 1-0 at half-time, the manager pushed George Woodcock to a more advanced attacking role in order to put pressure on Watford’s strong defense. A lot of people were confused by the decision.
“Why doesn’t he put on another attacking player instead of me?” George was confused too but did as the manager told him.
George still remembered that second half vividly. For the first twenty minutes, he had been extremely nervous. He was constantly misplacing passes since he wasn’t used to the incisive passing that attacking midfielders had to do.
But then an opportunity had presented itself to him. The defense had trailed off from him underestimating him by the way he had been playing poorly. He had received the ball and was looking around for a pass but, unable to find someone, he had gone for a shot.
The shot didn’t have much power but the ball went through a defender’s leg which blindsided the goalkeeper and ended up striking the post and nestling into the nest.
He couldn’t believe it.
He had scored.
And that was all the spark he needed to turn his career into a blazing inferno.
He scored five goals that match and from that point onwards, he always played in the attacking role. The news of that match had spread throughout the school and people were hailing him now instead of abusing him.
It felt strange to his introvert personality but he quickly embraced it. He was getting somewhere now. He was finally where he had wanted to be.
George’s confidence was on the rise and within a week, he already had a date. It was a pretty girl who was his group partner in the chemistry lab with whom he had gotten along well.
A lot of girls had been noticing him recently but she was the first girl who he had actually talked to him properly. They became good friends and with prom right around the corner with the GCSE exams following right after, he conjured up the courage to ask her to be his date.
She said yes and George had felt over the moon.
Within a week, she was already thinking of how they were going to fall in love and get married. The way she was obsessing over George made him feel great. It made him good about himself in a way he had never felt before.
But George Woodcock did not and would never love her, or anyone for that matter.
The only one he loved was football.
Within a few months of popularity, which inflated his ego, he left her broken-hearted telling her that he was not ready for commitment. He felt confined with her. He was going to become a famous footballer who would be dating super models and hanging out with celebrities.
She was holding him back. There was no way they were going to work out.
George left school choosing to instead devote himself fully to football. He had no intention of continuing his studies but after his mother’s insistence he decided that he would take private tuitions.
He had become very social in the following months hanging out with friends and dating girls but he still did not let it get to his head to the point that he started ignoring his career. He was aware of how so many footballing wonderkids had ruined their careers when they had started to become popular.
This was only the beginning. He still had a long way to go.
“Stay grounded,” his father would advise. “You can have all the fun you want when you’re a big player but you’re not at that stage yet.”
At the end of the season, George had accumulated a total of 15 goals in the remaining 12 games of the season. Rumors were already circulating around the press of how his father wanted him at Crystal Palace (where he was still managing) if he was not able to breakthrough to the first team at Chelsea.
That was the one major flaw about Chelsea’s Academy. They had fantastic coaching services but there was no way you could get a proper chance to play in the first team.
So many talented players had rotted away on the benches at Chelsea when they could have gone away to different clubs to become stars.
That was mainly due to Chelsea’s trigger-happy policy of firing managers when they started going through bad patches resulting in managers not choosing to promote inexperienced youth prospects. George knew if he was to have even a chance of making the bench then he had to be fully focused in training.
As expected, he could not break through the ranks of the elite players and thus, was loaned out to Crystal Palace.
His father was the prime reason he had chosen to go there with him advising his son that he needed playing time at such crucial age if he wanted to thrive as a player. He had been nervous at first since he had been at Chelsea for his whole career but, since Crystal Palace was in London, he had begun to settle in very well.
It was a very weird feeling to be coached by his father. He had known the man his whole life but at the club, he seemed like an entirely different person.
Everyone at the club had thought that he would get special treatment since he was the gaffer’s child but that wasn’t the case. In fact, Hugh Woodcock, treated him very roughly in training often criticizing him if he made the slightest mistake in training.
“What the hell are you doing, George?! You call that a shot?! I could hit a better one in my sleep!”
“What kind of first touch is that? Two laps around the ground. What are you looking me for?! Starting running!”
At home, his father would act like he hadn’t been yelling at him in training. Hugh could tell that his behavior was confusing his son and would try his best to reduce the awkwardness between them.
“I only acted like that in training because I want you to improve as a player. Trust me.”
For the first few matches, however, George was confined to the bench with him only getting a few minutes of game time towards the end as a substitute.
The cameras had caught his annoyed expressions as he sat watching the game leading to the press making up stories about fake feuds between him and his father.
There was no enmity between them, only frustration from George. He wanted to play. His performance as a striker had only just picked up in the previous season and he wanted to keep that momentum going.
George finally got his chance two months after the season had begun. Their main striker Benteke had picked up a small knock to the knee resulting in him being out for a week. As a result, George was picked as a starting striker for the first time against rivals West Ham United.
George was extremely nervous thinking he would not play well considering how long it had been since he had started a match. But he did not realize that his father had been slowly easing him into the team through the substitution appearances and intense training sessions.
He still remembered the roaring of the crowd and the weight of their expectations on his shoulders when he walked onto the field. The crowd was nowhere near the size of the crowd that would appear for the youth matches and it seemed larger than when he had appeared as a substitute.
It was perhaps because of the sense of anticipation that made it feel like that. He could already feel his legs shaking a bit as he walked up to the center circle.
George Woodcock had been very rusty in the first half of the match constantly letting the ball go and scuffing the chances he got. He still remembered the moans of the disappointed crowd whenever he would mess up. It made him want to sink into the ground.
In the dressing room at half-time, Hugh Woodcock was furious at his son.
“We should be 3-0 up at half-time but instead we’re losing because of you! You’re putting pressure on the defense! This is your last chance, George. You’re going down to the reserves if you play like this!”
George had never seen his father this angry at him before. He was surprised at his decision not to substitute him at half-time.
He was scared of the final whistle now. He couldn’t face his father’s anger if he continued playing like this. He had to try harder.
This half-time was like a final for him. If he lost it, his whole career could go down the drain.
Hugh Woodcock knew a kick to the arse was the thing that was required to straighten his son that match.
The feeling of pride he felt when he saw his son instigate a comeback against West Ham in that second half, the way he celebrated like crazy after each goal of his son’s hat-trick; it was something he would never forget until the day he would die.
By then, his son would be one of the greatest footballers in the world. Something he had failed to become.
(To be continued……)
Written by Abdullah Riaz
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