They’re not getting any worse. That’s comforting, at least.
Pretty small comfort, to be honest. Coach Lasso keeps telling them that they’re gonna turn this around soon, but Nate and Beard have started looking worried at their team meetings, and whatever folksy Midwest spiel Ted keeps spinning, Colin knows Isaac isn’t buying it. You can’t hide your emotions from your best mate – and honestly, Isaac’s not even trying to hide his. Half their lockers are dented because he keeps punching them, and he’s heard Higgins audibly worry that their budget isn’t going to cover what he terms ‘Isaac Incidents’.
Still, it’s a bit of a surprise to go into the café one day and see Isaac lying facedown on one of the sofas, groaning incoherently.
“Uh – you alright there, mate?” he says. Some of the girls from Communications are watching them nervously, and Colin’s cheery wave doesn’t seem to put their minds at ease at all. “Some fancy foreign film lost at the Oscars again?”
Isaac’s only response is to bury himself further into the seat cushions. “We’re crap. That’s three games we’ve lost in a row; we’re never getting back into the Premiership. I’m a shit captain.”
Anxiously Colin sits down and pats his shoulder. He doesn’t know what to do with Isaac like this. His first response is to run for Ted - deep and meaningful chats not really being his and Isaac’s thing - but maybe now isn’t the time for Isaac to be jollied up and told it’s all going to be ok when he honestly believes it’s not. And he can’t get any of the other lads. Isaac’s the captain. The team can’t see the captain spiralling.
“You’re not. You’re great at captaining, honest you are.”
“’M not, bruv. Otherwise we’d be winning. Roy should’ve picked someone else – Zoreaux, Sam. Even Tartt’d be a better choice.”
“What, Jamie? Sure, if you want every pre-game talk to be ‘ten easy steps to shinier, more manageable hair’.”
Not even a snigger. Shit, Isaac really is miserable.
“We’re gonna be stuck in the Championship League forever and it’s all my fault.”
Jesus. “Alright, boyo, calm it down a little, yeah?” None of his jokes are landing, and he really isn’t the best person to provide a pep talk. All he can do is think desperately of how unprepared he is for this, how hard it is to cheer someone up when they don't want it, how when he was little and miserable at school his mum would always comfort him by - “Isaac, we’ll turn it around just like the gaffer says, you’ve just got to get out of your own head. Come on, budge up and have a cwtch.”
“That’s not some weird Welsh sex thing, is it?”
“No,” Colin says, a little exasperated that Isaac thinks he’d be so tacky as to try it on at work, “because we’re in the middle of the caf and that’s, like, seriously unhygienic.”
This at least results in a grudging smile. Isaac sits up and allows Colin to sit alongside him: wrapping his arms around his brawny frame and squeezing, hard, as if trying to wring all the crap and self-doubt and the bad feelings straight from him. When he nestles his head into Isaac’s shoulder he receives a grunt in response.
“So ‘s just a hug, yeah?”
“It’s not just a hug; it’s a cwtch, you repressed English philistine,” Colin grumbles. “Like when your mum would give you a proper cuddle when you were small. Now shut up and stop being such a pillock and just – receive some affection like a bloody grown up.”
It takes some time, if he’s honest. Isaac keeps squirming and muttering - Colin can clearly hear the words ‘crap’ and ‘rubbish captain’ repeated beneath his breath- but cwtching takes time to the uninitiated. You just have to wait. So Colin stays there, cuddling up and rubbing a hand between Isaac’s shoulders, working the bad feelings out, until Isaac just sighs and slumps back against him, the tension flooding from his muscles. Atta boy, McAdoo.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do if we keep losing, Colin.”
“Something’ll come up, mate,” Colin tells him, “and you’ve got us on your side until it does.”
“Yeah. Thanks, bruv.”
“Any time, Isaac.”
The law of averages says that there has to be at least one supermodel that turns Richard down in his lifetime. It’s just that none of them have ever seen it happen before. The rest of the team are gaping in amazement.
Jamie filmed the whole thing, which Colin thinks is a bit harsh. Funny, but harsh.
“Alright,” Zoreaux whispers. Everyone’s watching Richard with the sort of anxiety usually reserved for tightrope walkers or people saying shit like ‘I’ll jump, I mean it!’. Right now he’s just sort of....staring into the distance, oblivious to the noise of the club and the scrutiny of his teammates. Nevertheless, something in the way his eyelid is twitching suggests Richard is about to go off the deep end. Hard. “Now, what we have here is a very delicate situation, it requires some gentle handling...”
“That was embarrassing,” Jan announces loudly. The entire team groans.
With one deep breath Richard blurts out a stream of horrified, rather tearful French. His hands flail as only a Frenchman’s can. Colin is pretty sure this is the first time he’s ever seen someone have an existential crisis.
“Ok...” he says, setting both arms around Richard and giving him a rather nervous pat on the back. Richard is a bit like a supercar in that respect: supremely pretty, but the slightest thing goes wrong and suddenly the whole thing’s gone to shit. “Ok, buddy, that’s alright; just bring it in...”
He spends the rest of the night cuddling Richard and nodding sympathetically in response to the high-pitched squeaking and incomprehensible French; and vows to get supremely drunk as soon as he can.
How many times has he been turned down by a model? Plenty, and he never dissolved into hysterics. That’s all he’s saying.
The film night before the match against Middlesborough is a double feature: The Lion King followed by Inside Out. (Colin has a theory that finding new ways to make them cry is just Coach Lasso’s own answer to therapy at this stage.) It was a bloody long drive, and they’re all knackered, and quite frankly the trauma of rewatching Mufasa die is just plain exhausting. So by the time Simba’s singing Hakuna Matata with his buddies Colin is unconscious on the sofa.
He wakes up just in time to see Bing Bong jump onto screen for the first time: there’s dark hair tickling his neck and the weight of something pressing down against his chest. Cracking one eye open, Colin glances down to see that Bumbercatch has fallen asleep directly on top of him. He's hugging a fluffy pillow tight and curled up against Colin’s chest like a six year old.
The others are smirking at them.
“We took pictures,” Jan says, waving his phone as evidence.
“Fuck off,” Colin grumbles, wrapping both arms around Bumbercatch. “You’re all just jealous.”
(“Oi, Inside Out is a cinematic masterpiece which normalises talking about mental health and proper communication, you bunch of wankers,” Isaac calls from across the room, “so the next person who talks through it is getting punched in the dick.”)
Colin gives Jan the finger and then snuggles into the sofa, cuddling Bumbercatch tighter. Beats a hot water bottle any day of the week.
Dani, of course, doesn’t need the concept of cwtch explained to him. Dani is cwtch personified, particularly when he’s down a few drinks: one minute you’re on the dancefloor and suddenly you have a six-foot Mexican wrapped around you, snuggling into your shoulder and telling you that you’re the best footballer and the best friend and don’t you dare go believing any different. Dani is the cuddliest, most cwtch-worthy person on the face of the planet.
Still, there comes a day when they’re coming in from training and Dani’s sitting on the bench staring at his phone – just slumped, you know, like someone’s taken all the stuffing out of him or something.
It’s Sam he passes his phone to. They all gather around as Sam reads out the text from Dani’s mother: saying that says she’s sorry, she’s so sorry and she knows Dani’s been wanting his parents to visit England for so long and she misses him so much, but his abuela is so frail at the moment that they’re not going to be able to make their holiday and please, mijo, keep her in your prayers.
Colin sits with his arms locked around Dani and his head tucked into the crook of his neck for a long time after that.
The next day he comes in a little early to make good use of the gym. Colin’s halfway through changing when there’s a dark blur: the next thing he knows he has two armfuls of Dani, right there in the locker room, squeezing him tight enough to make him gasp. “Gracias, amigo,” and Dani’s lips briefly touching his cheek, and then he leaves Colin to it.
As Richmond's resident Welshman he knows a thing or two about crap weather. Colin doesn’t have to put up with weather jokes because he makes them all himself – ‘You’re from Wales, are you boyo? How old were you before you realised you could take off your cagoule?’ – and is the only one who doesn’t complain about being set laps in the rain. That being said –
“This,” he announces through chattering teeth, “is shit.”
Isaac has his hoodie tucked up to his ears; Sam is visibly shuddering. Poor Bumbercatch, who doesn't exactly have much body mass to spare, looks close to fainting. Out on the pitch some sort of gale-force wind is howling around them, spitting flecks of ice and sleet into their faces. Before practice Ted had warned about it being 'kinda bracing' out there, which Colin decides must be American for ‘Arctic’.
And then to add insult to injury, the rest of the team are treated to the sight of Thierry Zoreaux bouncing across the pitch, his bald head gleaming in the sun. He’s wearing t-shirt and shorts, for fuck’s sake.
“Bastard,” Jamie grumbles.
When they line up for stretches Colin ends up next to Zoreaux. He's aware he's not exactly the tallest of buffest member of the team, so standing next to Zoreaux rarely does much for his body image at the best of times - but now, shivering away while Zoreaux bounces and stretches, he feels like a little kid.
“How?” Colin squeaks as he tries to bury himself further into his hoodie.
“What, this? I visited my grandparents up in the Yukon every spring,” Zoreaux says with a smirk. “This is nothing.”
Oh God. He thinks he’s going to die.
“Man,” Zoreaux announces smugly, “now this is what I call real weather.”
Fuck it. Without warning Colin latches onto Zoreaux, slinging both arms about his torso and burying his head into the goalkeeper’s chest. Traditionally the cwtch is meant to be for the benefit of the cwtchee, not the cwtcher, but, he’s desperate.
“Whoa, what are you doing?”
“Stealing your body heat,” Colin mutters from somewhere in Zoreaux’s chest, “because it’s either that or you’re going to have to bury a very small, very frostbitten Welshman right here on the pitch.”
“Bro,” Zoreaux says with an exasperated look, “you really need to get better at – uh, hey, Sam.”
Blinking up, Colin sees that Sam has set up shop on Zoreaux’ other side, snuggling in to try and get steal of the big man’s warmth himself. When Zoreaux rolls his eyes Sam just beams. “Hi guys.”
"They look pretty warm over there, don’t they?” Colin hears Dani whispering to Jan on the other side of the group. When Isaac barks at them to pay attention Colin makes eye-contact and sticks his tongue out at him.
“No,” Zoreaux announces at Dani’s hopeful look. “No, no, no, we’re not doing this. This is not what we’re doing right now.”
By the time Nate comes out to talk them through training they have somehow arranged themselves in a twenty-two man group hug, with Zoreaux in the middle grumbling about how no-one who lives south of Edmonton gets to complain about the weather ever again. Nate's look of confusion almost makes the cold worth it. Almost.
Jan is…well, he’s Jan. He has many fine qualities: he’s smart, he’s well-read, he can mix a mean cocktail and, as they discover on another karaoke night, he can sing ABBA like nobody's business. But he is not a hugger.
Colin considers once or twice introducing Jan Maas into the ways of the cwtch, before realising that’s not going to go down well.
At least, not until Jan’s birthday: they’ve rented a room at the Crown and Anchor and more than a few beers have been sunk and everyone’s giving out presents. Colin hands over a bottle of scotch and gives Jan a hopeful look, and Jan rolls his eyes. “Alright, alright, go ahead,” he says, extending his arms begrudgingly.
The entire team awws as Colin pulls Jan into a very unwilling cwtch.
“You’re getting a reputation for this,” Jan grumbles. Colin notices the other man is stooping to accommodate his lack of height.
“Nah, boyo,” Colin says brightly, holding on just that little bit longer because he knows it’ll annoy Jan. If you can get a grouchy Dutchman into a cuddle, you’re doing well for yourself. “Shows I love all my teammates equally.”
“A bit too much, if you ask me,” Jan mutters, but musses his hair tolerantly when Colin lets go.
Their win against Huddersfield culminates in a night out involving more Jaegerbombs and kebabs than any one night should contain - and this is coming from someone who spent most of his teenage years in Cardiff on a Saturday night. By the time Monday rolls around a very hungover Colin is feeling his way gingerly through the club and into the locker-room, to see Sam staring miserably at his phone.
“Mate,” Colin says sympathetically, “it’s been two weeks. Maybe you ought to just...let this one go?”
Sam makes a muffled sound and flops back against his locker, casting the phone to one side. “You’re right. Of course you’re right. I just - augh - haven’t you ever met someone that you just clicked with, where it just felt so right from the minute you start talking? Of course,” he shrugs, “not that we actually met, but you know what I mean...”
Colin just ducks his head. The truth is, he doesn’t really know where Sam’s coming from. He’s been with a lot of blokes and a lot of girls - he’s been a bit of a slut in the past, to be honest, even if Doctor Sharon says that’s not a helpful way of viewing himself, and being a professional footballer doesn’t hurt matters either. But he’s never felt that connection with anyone he’s been shagging - not as he does with his teammates, that feeling of being safe, of someone having your back no matter what, of fitting - and listening to Sam talk, he’s almost jealous.
Almost. Then again, seeing Sam’s utter dejection, maybe he's just relieved that he's never had to go through all that.
“I’m sorry, Sam,” he said, sitting alongside him. “Maybe she’s just...not the right one for you, you know? You’re young, you’re hot: there’s gonna be others. Maybe you and this lady were just - what would Coach Lasso say? ‘Like passing trains in the night’, or something.”
Sam’s lips twitch in that way which means Colin’s said something wrong, but he doesn’t point it out, and Colin’s grateful for that. “Maybe. Maybe I should just put it out of my mind, give it a few weeks. Thanks Colin.”
He grins. Loops his arms around Sam and pulls the younger footballer into a cuddle; Sam's head fits perfectly into the crook of his neck and he just squeezes, sits. This feels safe. This fits.
“Hey, don’t think because you’re being nice and I’m all vulnerable that you’re getting a date out of this,” Sam jokes after a few minutes of companionable silence. “I’m not getting in that Lamborghini with you again until you take a speed awareness course.”
“Hard-to-get’s a cute look on you, Obisanya,” Colin teases, and receives a full belly laugh in return.
Jamie's the first one on the bus, followed by Roy. By silent consensus the rest of the team hang back to give them a moment.
"Fuck, man..." Sam whispers, and it's the first time Colin thinks he's ever heard him swear. "Just...fuck..."
Colin nods along. Dani's shaking his head as if still not certain he understands what they've all just seen; Isaac looks close to punching something. The rest of them are speechless.
Losing a match has never seemed so unimportant as it does tonight.
He wants to say that it explains a lot, only that's something Jan might say. Colin doesn't mean it as an insult though. Only to think that if Jamie's had to put up with that crap from his father, day after day after day after day, barking and sniping and challenging and needling and hurting - well fuck, Jamie's a lot more normal than he has any right to be. No wonder he was such a twat. No wonder he bigged himself up every chance he got. No wonder he tried to push the rest of them down to keep him in the spotlight, if that spotlight was the only chance he had of surviving.
"Some serious bullshit right there," Isaac mutters to him as they hang around Wembley carpark. Higgins, bless him, is moving around the players as if they're all his kids, handing out water and chocolate bars and murmuring quietly to each of them in turn; in stark contrast Ted is sitting on his own some distance away, silent as the grave.
He doesn't know how long they stand around like this. When Nate, who's been hanging around by the bus doors waiting for Jamie and Roy to finish up, clears his throat they all jump. He looks almost angry and tearful at the same time. "C'mon on, you lot, time to go."
Colin doesn't know why, but he pats Nate on the shoulder as he troops up onto the bus with the others. Not the time for a full hug, maybe. Still, the little guy looks like he could do with something.
Jamie sits, slumped, in the back seat of the bus, eyes cast down. Roy makes his way back down the aisle and passes them a nod as he does so; the eight of them file their way to the back and sit down around Jamie without conferring. Colin ends up directly next to Jamie. The younger man is holding himself stiff as a board, but where his knee presses against Colin's it's trembling, hard.
Fuck. Colin's rarely at a loss for words, but fuck.
There's a moment's silence, and then Jan squares his jaw. "Screw that asshole," he announces as the other players file on. "He has no right to say that shit to you."
For once it feels like Jan's said the right thing, but - well, shit, maybe it's the first time anyone's ever looked Jamie in the eye and told him that it was wrong: that he never ought to have been treated that way, that all of this was wrong. Something in Jamie's face screws up, little-boy-lost, and he just crumbles. Colin has his arms around him before he hits the bus floor.
"Alright, mate, we've got you," he mutters into Jamie's shirt. As he rocks him Jamie doubles up, silent tears soaking into the knees of Colin's jeans, and Sam's on his other side with his arms about Jamie's shoulders. "It's alright, we're here. We've got you, mate. We've got you."
He isn't sure how long he sits in the locker-room after Dad leaves. An hour. Maybe two. It doesn't much matter. It's like this sometimes...half an hour conversation with his father and he just feels tired, like bone-achingly tired, and he just wants to lie down on the bed and not get up.
Hey, Colin knows he's lucky. Other people have fathers who smack the shit out of them, or try to make them feel crap about themselves. His dad doesn't do any of that. His dad wouldn't think he's worth the effort. The only reason his dad's even in Richmond to begin with isn't to see a game, or to catch up with his son, it's because there's a headteacher's conference in London tomorrow, and Colin's mum told him to visit while he was up. Which is fine, right? The guy has to work. And he supports Cardiff, so it's not like he's going to go out of his way to watch Richmond and his son play. It's fine.
After a moment Isaac sticks his head around the door. His face is screwed up with concern. "You alright?"
His dad's had a hard life. He wanted his sons to go for safe, steady jobs, to make something of themselves; not to end up as class-clown-fuck-ups who make a living playing a game that ten year olds play in their back garden. It's fine.
Sam's head appears behind Isaac's. "Shit. Maybe someone should go for Coach Lasso."
"Jesus," he mutters, rolling his eyes. "I'm fine. You don't need to all be babysitting me like this."
The rest of them file in, and Colin has to suppress a snort at the way they all shuffle in: like bloody ducklings behind Isaac, or something like that. Only he's too tired. He leans his head back against the locker and closes his eyes, waits for the pounding in his head to stop.
"What happened, bruv?"
He opens his eyes and tries speak, only to discover to his shame that there's a lump where the words should be. Fuck. "I thought - " Colin says, and then has to stop, and start again. "I thought - I ought to tell him about me. About liking blokes as well as girls, you know?"
"So we need to key this guy's car, or what?" Zoreaux asks, with what Colin considers unnecessary eagerness.
Colin shakes his head. "No, it's not - he doesn't care about the whole bisexual thing. He's a headteacher, he has to run all these assemblies about acceptance and tolerance and all that crap. He doesn't care." He tries to bite down on his tongue, because this is kid's stuff: he's used to this, used to being a disappointment, used to knowing that his dad might love him because he has to, but that doesn't mean he likes him. "I just told him and he just sort of...hmmed, like 'ok, yeah, let's get the conversation over with then'. And then I said that I'd been nervous about telling people because, well, football's hard to come out and all that, and there had been a couple of times with exes threatening to say stuff where I'd been really scared, and he said that people all over have problems and mine aren't anything special, and I don't need to go demanding attention for it." Colin's throat works. "And I asked if he was disappointed in me and he sort of...snorted and said 'not for that, at least'."
"So he's not necessarily a bigot," Jamie concludes. "Just a complete twat."
Some sons would get their heads kicked in if they told their dad something like that. And his mum knows, and she's fine with it, and his sisters too, and he's...he's lucky. It's fine.
"Colin," Sam says quietly, "are you alright?"
This isn't anything to get upset over. He's a strong and capable man. He's not a piece of shit. He's not some spoilt, demanding, attention-seeking fuck-up piece of shit. It's fine. It's fine.
"I just," fuck, his throat's closing up again, and he's knuckling at his eyes, trying to keep it together, "when I told him how scared I'd been, I thought he'd care more. That's what dads are supposed to do, isn't it: care?"
It's when Dani touches his arm that the first sob escapes his lips, a thin pathetic sound, and he finds himself sagging forward and pressing his face into Dani's shoulder. He's trembling, even as Dani sets his arms around him and begins saying something in Spanish; Isaac wraps his arms around his chest from behind. Sam has hold of one hand, Jamie of the other. And even as he trembles he knows they're all around him, that they're here - Richard, Bumbercatch, Zoreaux and Jan all surrounding them, all leaning in murmuring and encouragement -
And all of them are here with him, all messy and close. All of them surely, faithfully, letting Colin know that he's not alone.