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After The Pitch

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I’ve never seen someone move like Baz Pitch.

He darts away from tough conversations and slithers out of emotions and dashes through tense situations with grace and ease and determination. He chases distractions like he’s chasing a score, and he strides tall and confident away from anything that upsets him. From anyone who upsets him. He darts around them like an opposing player.

If the world presents him with a situation he doesn’t like, he either dances through it like a defensive blockade or he streaks off down the field in the opposite direction.

Even when he can’t run—even when he can’t walk—he’s still moving.

Those days after the accident—the long days in the hospital with the beeping monitors and fluorescent lights and chattering nurses—Baz was playing pure defence.

He feinted around every doctor. He pranced away from the physical therapist. He cocked a dark eyebrow and stared down his long nose and decided that he didn’t hear what they were saying, that ominous phrases like “long recovery” and “diminished strength” and “one more fall” and “career-ending” did not exist.

He was in a hospital bed, his left leg done up in a cast, and he was running for his life.

I wasn’t at the game. It was an away match in Cardiff and I was at home, asleep on the sofa. I wasn’t even watching the match on TV, because I wait to watch his away games with him when he comes home.

Malcolm had to call me three times before I woke up, and by the time I’d scrambled out of the house and made the drive, I got in hours after the rest of his family had shown up. The look of relief on his face when I burst into the hospital room almost made me cry. No one had told me what all had happened, but the palpable tension in the air was so thick I could chew it.

He hadn’t been prepped to move to London for the surgery yet, but he was already shutting down, running away, ignoring everything that had to do with the dreaded word.

Retirement.

“You have to talk to him,” Malcolm had told me over burnt coffee as we sat hunched at a table in the corner of the London hospital cafe. Malcolm had been there almost as much as I was, because when Baz was unconscious for surgery, Malcolm was his medical guardian.

I’m his partner of ten years, but I had no rights there. I was brought in by the staff as his friend. I couldn’t even hold his hand when nurses were in the room, just in case they told someone.

I wanted to say hang the privacy, hang the secrets, hang ever fucking barrier that kept me from being there with him. But he pulled his hand away whenever someone new entered, and I couldn’t find the words to ask him not to.

“If he wants to try to keep playing, that’s what he wants,” I’d muttered, scratching at the fake plastic table top. I didn’t tell Malcolm that we’d already had this fight, almost as soon as he came out of surgery and started bitching about missing his season. I’d already cracked my voice from embarrassing angry crying, and Baz had already turned his head to the side so that he wouldn’t have to look at me.

He’d stared down his long Roman nose at the chair in the corner, and acted like I wasn’t there. Acted like my world wasn’t crumbling right along with his.

Everything was swimming: I’d been almost two days of no sleep, running back and forth between our house and the hospital, dodging the press, running interference with family and friends. I’d barely even spoken to Baz outside of the argument because every time he was awake, some member of the Spurs administrative or legal or health team were there conferring.

They know about me. The whole club knows about me. They just all pretend not to. Baz and I don’t force the issue.

We realised early on in his Premier League career that hiding me wouldn’t work. I was too entrenched in his life and business already. Turning me into a secret would just raise more questions. It was Malcolm who suggested it, eventually: just hide me in plain sight.

People have expectations and assumptions of what gay men look and act like, and Baz and I don’t fit that. So we just kept living our lives, using small lies here and there, and let people assume what they wanted. Best friends, they called us. Which is true. We are best friends. Every night I fall asleep with my face pressed to the back of my best friend’s neck, and every morning he wakes up to his best friend in his arms.

Sometimes it feels surreal. The not-hiding. Sometimes it’s hysterically, laughably insane. Everyone who follows Baz knows me. Knows about our business and our living arrangements and our friendship. The Guardian did an entire write up about it once, after Baz scored that match-winning goal in the semi-final against West Ham and his career started really exploding.

“A heartwarming footie bromance” they called it. We have the article framed in our downstairs lav, right above the toilet.

Pitch’s close friendships with his old school teammates are well known—Spurs fans are used to the green and purple bloc of cheering lads that show up to most home matches—but no friendship is closer than that of Pitch and his best friend, Simon Snow, 25.

Although Pitch is notoriously private about his life and relationships, he’s always been happy to share Snow with the world. Fans are familiar with Snow from his frequent appearances on Pitch’s social media—a video of him getting caught eating shredded cheese in front of the fridge at 3 am went viral last year—and Tottenham has supported their relationship has a professional aspect as well. Pitch is a co-founder of Snow’s philanthropic organisation City Kicks. Part football academy, part youth club, City Kicks caters to disadvantaged London youth. Since opening, three City players have gone on to sign contracts with League One and Two clubs.

“When I was a kid, I had nothing,” Snow told The Guardian when his academy opened. “Out of nowhere I got offered a football scholarship to Watford, and suddenly I had everything. Food and housing and a future and friends. I just want to give that opportunity to other kids. Otherwise, what was the point?”

When asked why he decided to partner with Snow for the organisation, Pitch claimed that “Snow wouldn’t shut up until I said yes. His voice is extremely annoying.”

Snow and Pitch are also roommates, and share Pitch’s Harringay townhouse—yes, the same one that Pitch fitted out with a mini-pitch and pub in the garden.

“I’ve lived with Snow since I was eleven,” Pitch told reporters when the friends moved in two years ago, shortly after Pitch started with the Spurs. “At this point it’s weird not to hear him thumping around in the next room like a cow. Also, with a roommate you don’t have to pay someone to water your plants.”

Shortly after the article came out, Dev and Niall had sent us a huge arrangement of roses. “Congratulations on your heartwarming bromance” the card had said.

At times like that our situation is funny.

But it’s not that funny when you’re sitting in the hospital with your partner’s father, unable to do anything and having to talk about the end of your partner’s career in hushed tones, because the official league word was that Baz was stable and recovering.

“The doctor said he’ll never be able to run on that knee again,” Malcolm had whispered. He looked tense and tight and tired. I couldn’t remember a time he hadn’t. I never even know if Malcolm likes me, because nothing about our interactions has ever changed since that first summer I spent in Hampshire. He and Baz are so similar that way.

“It’s his choice,” I’d insisted, even though I agreed. There were some injuries you didn’t come back from. Even if you’re Baz Pitch.

“I just don’t think he knows what he needs—”

“He needs football.” I pulled my hands through my curls and let them stay there. “He needs it, Malcolm. More than anything.”

“Simon, he’ll only listen to you. You’re the only one who can make him see reason,” he had tried, a last, desperate thing. It was odd, seeing Malcolm wearing the expressions that I was holding back. It felt like the world had tipped.

“Baz only listens after I’ve fought him to the death to make a point,” I’d argued. “And I’m not going to fight him on this.”

That was a lie, though. I am fighting him.

It’s all I know how to do.

I fight him in small ways, picking my battles. In the war to convince Baz to not go back to football, the first win isn’t about retirement: it’s about getting Baz back to himself. Because without football, he’s decided to not be Baz. He’s there in shape — dark hair, light eyes, brooding complexion and snappy comments. But the light is gone. The fire is out. The passion and drive and love that I’ve lived with my whole life has all been turned to his physical therapy, and there’s nothing left for anything or anyone else.

I fight in slow ways: I wake him up, so he won’t sleep till noon. I’ve always been the early riser of the two of us. If he doesn’t have somewhere to go, he’ll stay in bed all day like a cat. So when I get up to make breakfast before work, I wake him too. I almost hate to do it, because I love him when he sleeps. He’s beautiful and fierce and never soft for a moment in his life, and I like to lay there and watch him, and sometimes imagine. Imagine our lives after football. Imagine staying in. Imagine Baz when I could have him all to myself, without the team and press and obligations of the season schedule

Then I pull the blinds and slam the dresser and put up with his cursing and force him into the shower.

I fight him when he says he’s going to go round to the club facilities, “just to observe the training.” I tell him I need help at the academy; that I’ve got an issue with the books; that I need something from the store; that I’m playing truant and want a day in. He’s in too deep to seek me out and tell me he needs me and my arms and my embrace, but he’s not so far gone to ignore me when I say I need it. That’s what gives me hope in all this.

I’ve been fighting Baz since I was eleven. I know his weak spots. I know that I have to wait him out. That I’ll get further by agreeing with him than fighting him. That if I take his side now, when everyone is against this, that he’ll trust my judgement later when it comes down to my final, bursting charge.

I know that I have to keep him busy and distracted, or else he’ll sit in the back garden and stare off into space all day. That I need to run my finger through his long hair and scratch at his scalp and crawl up behind him on the sofa and yammer about my day if I want any hope of breaking through his fog each night.

And I know that when he rolls over just after midnight and buries his face in my chest, I can’t say anything.

Because he’ll run away from it.

But it’s fine. Baz may be a leading scorer, he may be an aggressive offensive player, but I’m not. I always played better defensive. I know what I’m doing.

It takes him four months to talk about it.

We’re in our bedroom watching Tottingham take Ajax in the Champions League. He has his notes and playbook out in front of him and I’m reclined back against the pillows eating ice cream. That’s the best thing about not being a pro footballer: I can eat ice cream whenever I want and not feel bad about it. The only people I play with anymore are kids, and I’ve got nothing to prove to them. Even if Baz likes to poke at my stomach like a dick, I have no regrets.

The Spurs are up by two when he puts his notes away and leans back against me. I open my arms for him immediately.

“Sometimes I think everything I have is because of football,” he says, his low voice almost a whisper. “Everything good.”

Sometimes when Baz opens up, I feel like I have to hold my breath. Like even the slightest disturbance in the air will send him scuttling back into his fortress of privacy. It so rarely happens without me beating it out him.

“I know. I feel the same,” I say softly, shoving my ice cream bowl onto the overly expensive bedside table that I really hate but Baz insisted we get because it’s part of an overblown poncy set. I dig my fingers into his hair and twirl the strands, and decide to be brave. I leave my defensive line. I charge down the field. “But if you stop playing, it doesn’t mean you give up football. It’s still there. We still have the academy.”

“What would my life even be?” he groans, turning to shove his face into my leg. “What are even the benefits?”

I pause scratching.

“Well, you’d keep your fucking knee in one piece, for one,” I growl, yanking on his hair a bit too hard. He hisses and I smooth it out, my voice going softer. “And we’ve talked about your retirement before. And... what it could mean for us.”

We always knew this was coming. We knew there would be a part of our future that didn’t include football. We thought we’d have until we were thirty-five, maybe, if we were lucky. But Baz is big. Baz is a main player. As he got more and more popular, I think I realised that there was never really going to be a retirement from football. Not really.

So retirement has always been this nebulous future thing: when he retires, we could buy a house in the country. When he retires, we could expand the academy. When he retires, we could stop hiding.

When he retires, we could get married. We could start a family.

These things aren’t on the table, not right now. Not when our lives are dictated by the rules and morals of the Premier League, when our house is under Baz’s name and he officially has no significant other and we’re just very good mates and philanthropic business owners and we’re in a committed heartwarming footie bromance.

I don’t mind it. I told him that when he started, and I still mean it. I love our life, and I’ve never minded waiting. I’ve never minded what we give up for football. Because he’s right: football gave us everything. Everything good.

But now there’s a whole different future on our horizon, and I can’t lie. I want it.

I want it in a way that I’ve stopped wanting things since I was a kid. I have a good life, but it’s because I don’t expect. It’s because I don’t want. I take what comes at me one step at a time. I’m not the planner and preparer: Baz is. Baz plans our next moves, and I’m just the driving force that gets us there.

“I’m not ready to retire,” he whispers against my skin. “I haven’t done enough yet.” A ghost of a kiss.

I close my eyes. Push back the want. Nothing good comes from wanting.

“Then don’t get hurt again,” I tell him. Not a request. A demand. “Or else you won’t have a choice.”

He sighs against my thigh and settles deeper into the mattress and tugs the blanket up over his leg and around his shoulders. He’s out of the hard cast and into a soft one which he refuses to wear around the house because he thinks it’s ugly. It is ugly, truth be told, but I shout at him to wear it anyway.

“Come to the academy tomorrow,” I whisper, adjusting so that I can bring my arms around him. He’s uncharacteristically warm from being bundled up in the blanket, and I hate that I like him like this: trapped, not running, forced to be soft right where I can hold him. “We’ve got a few kids starting up that I want you to see. One of them has an insane fucking foot.”

“I have an insane fucking foot,” he mumbles petulantly. I flick him on the ear, and he hisses and then reaches up my track shorts and pinches the soft skin of my upper thigh in retaliation. It makes me shout in surprise and nearly buck him off the bed, and I get a football boot to the head before I pin him down with my body weight and make him lay there, trapped and complaining, while I finish my ice cream.

Baz does come to the Academy with me.

It starts as him coming to watch every now and then, slowly circling the field and surveying the various age groups run drills. He gives a pointer here and there as he goes; pulls some kids aside for one-on-ones; starts getting invested.

Two months later, he knows the name and stats of every kid and has worked up training plans for each.

“Jordan keeps getting put in as a midfielder but have we ever thought of putting her in as a support striker?”

We’re eating dinner, and I look up from my phone, my mouth full of pasta, and blink at him.

“Why are you thinking about Jordan at,” I glance at his watch, “8 pm?”

“Because she’s underutilised. She plays like you, have you noticed?”

I hadn’t. I’m more busy with the philanthropic side of the Academy, to be honest. The side that helps give kids a place to do homework and get a free meal. It’s been ages since I’ve worked closely enough with players to know their styles.

“How does she play like me?”

“She’s all force. Brute strength,” he says, stabbing a piece of tomato viciously and glaring down at his notes. “She’s gorgeous to watch.”

I duck my head. Baz is the only one to ever tell me I play beautiful football. It’s not true. I don’t—never did. That was always him.

“I’m going to try her as support tomorrow in the scrimmage.”

I look carefully down at my phone and try not to sound too excited.

“I thought you were going to meet with Spurs management after physical therapy? To talk about next season?” This meeting has been looming. The meeting where he’s going to have to make the decision, to say yes, he’ll be back, or no, he’s not coming. The Spurs are following his lead: he’s that big a name. He’s got an opportunity almost no other player does. He can force his own fate.

I glance up, hopeful, to see a dark furrowed brow and narrowed grey eyes. They’re staring at his player notes. Not at me.

“Hm? Oh, well, I can reschedule.”

I take another bite of pasta and bite down a smile.
Jordan is brilliant as a support striker. I hadn’t planned to watch the scrimmage—I had enough on my hands as it was—but half the staff seemed to be missing, along with a good portion of the kids, and when I investigate I find them all at the pitch behind our building, gathered on the sidelines, watching a match.

Baz had matched Jordan up with Lacy, another midfielder who had been put in a striker, and they’re tearing down the field, passing to each other as easy as water, darting around the other players, driving goal after goal home.

“It’s like watching you two back at school,” Gareth mutters to me as I wander over, his arms crossed, a smile on his face. Gareth is the only of the Watford lads we employ at the Academy. He’s one of the trainers. “They’re a perfect match, I don’t know how I didn’t see it before.”

They are a perfect match, but they aren’t who I’m watching. My eyes are only on Baz, playing striker for the other team.

He shouldn’t be out there. He shouldn’t be playing, shouldn’t be running, especially shouldn’t be kicking. But he lopes up to Lacy to steal the ball and laughs with delight as she darts around him, his grey eyes crinkled up, his mouth open wide.

“Simon!” he calls, catching sight of me and waving. I wave back. I should yell at him. Tell him off for risking his recovery for a scrimmage. But I can’t. He looks so happy. So Baz.

“Come play my support!” he shouts.

I shake my head. “Not a chance, mate.” I play with the kids sometimes, but this is his spectacle. There’s no way he’s getting me in there to run along huffing behind him, making an idiot of myself.

“Get on the pitch, Snow!” he barks, his smile wide and demanding and imperious. One eyebrow arched. “Scared?”

“Oi, you’ve only got one good leg,” I shout back, but it’s useless. The kids around me are shouting and slapping my back, a chorus of “ Come on, Mr. Snow! ” and “Please?” echoing up around me. I’m defenceless around Baz, but I’m useless against little’uns.

“Fine, fine!” I shout, pulling my keys out of my pocket and handing them to Gareth. “I give in.”

I charge the field, swooping up behind Baz as the crowd gives a cheer. Cara with the red hair steals the ball from Jane with the glasses and passes it to me, and I take it down the field, throwing in what footwork I remember, dodging Jamie from Hounslow and passing neatly to Baz, who appears at my left with a wink and a smile and sends the ball careening over blonde Sarah’s head and neatly into the goal.

I rush him before I think it through. Charging straight at him, grabbing him in a rugby tackle like we’re fifteen again. We hit the grass with a thud, the air getting knocked out of both of us, and before I have time to realise what I’ve done or worry about his leg, six kids have launched themselves on top of us.

“Nice teamwork, Snow,” he says, smiling up at me. His dark hair is mussed all over his face and there will be grass stains on his jumper. One of the players shifts on top of us, digging an elbow into my back and causing me to grunt and him to wince, but his smile stays on.

“Nice foot, Pitch,” I whisper back, smiling.

The next morning he blinks at me over his coffee. He’s wearing his glasses. I fucking love his glasses. I love everything about morning Baz, with his old man spectacles and messy hair and too big shirt that he stole from me.

“Simon,” he says in the tone that always means we’re about to talk. I lower my scone hesitantly, mentally trying to remember whether I actually took the rubbish out last night.

“Yeah?”

“I know what you’ve been doing.”

What have I been doing? I wonder, frantic. I don’t answer. I just take a bite.

“Thank you,” he says, breaking eye contact and staring into his coffee. “You were right.” He sighs and props his head in his hand. “I hate it so much when you’re right.”

I swallow down my scone and meet his eyes.

“What was I right about?”

He closes his eyes and looks pained. Underneath the table, my leg erupts in pain as a professional footballer’s heel collides with my shin.

“Everything.”

He has his meeting with the Hotspurs management the next week, and he’s at the academy more after that. Sometimes we dive into a pick up game, but mostly we keep to our own spheres: me working with the younger kids, chasing them around. Him prowling the edges of the older games, shouting commands, demonstrating movements, demanding perfection.

Tottenham holds the press conference a month later.

We’re all there. Me. Malcolm. Gareth and Dev and Niall and the Watford lads, a few kids from the academy. We’re off to the side, there more for support than show, as Baz sits at a blue and white table and addresses a sea of reporters.

“Football has been very good to me,” he starts. “Everything good in my life has come from football.”

He whispered this to me last night, at three a.m. in the darkness of our room in the midst of a frenzy of nervous energy. He’d panted it into my shoulder, just moments before a softer, almost imperceptible, “football gave me you.”

I try not to think of that now.

“But I’ve come to the realisation that at this point in my life, my relationship with football has to change. We’re not breaking up, just changing our status,” he continues. I know he’s nervous and losing his shit internally, but on the outside he’s calm. Collected. Cool with that patented Baz Pitch hint of mocking. “Which is why I will not be returning to Tottenham next year, and am retiring from the Premier League.”

The crowd is shouting, sparring with each other to ask what and why and when and how. Baz points to various reporters and rattles off short answers and I stand there, watching, unable to breathe.

It’s happening. It’s really happening. He’s retiring.

Baz Pitch is leaving football.

Baz Pitch is about to belong to no one but me.

He points to another reporter and nods. “What are you going to do with your retirement?” the reporter asks, shoving a red microphone toward Baz.

“I’m going to focus on the academy, of course,” he says. His eyes meet mine through the crowd and I’m reminded of a boy from years ago, standing on a table, speaking to his adoring friends and teammates, filled with light and fury and the calm confidence of someone who knows what they want and sees no reason why they won’t get it.

He smiles at me.

“And I’m going to get married. If he’ll have me.”