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Hero. Hardship. Highlight.

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“How the fuck did you stand up there and say all that, mate? That took courage,” Jamie huffs his question out between gasps for breath as he and Sam run in sync along the road. 

Ted’s brilliant idea for their pre-season training was to drag the whole team out into the middle of fucking Snowdonia for 'team bonding', and for the last two days, it’s not stopped fucking raining. Jamie’s spent the whole time chewing his fingernails to the cuticle and freezing his balls off while being worked to the fucking bone by Beard’s new high-performance program. 

Beard has the team sticking together as they jog their way up Hellfire Pass - it has some Welsh name that Jamie is shite at pronouncing, but Colin insists on using it every time Jamie calls it Hellfire Pass. 

Jamie’s also crowned himself ‘Choons Captain’ on their early morning runs up the side of a fucking mountain. Colin tries to fight him for it, but if Jamie never hears another Drake song again, it will be too soon, and Colin’s skinny arms aren’t up to the task of lugging this beast of a speaker anywhere. Also, the speaker is fucking heavy, so it’s an extra workout, innit? 

So here he is, with his arms stretched up to the sky, gripping the speaker's handles with his Rhianna playlist blearing out into the wilderness. His feet hit the bitumen in time with the beat, and the volume is nearly loud enough to drown out Roy’s angry calls of “Fuckin’ move it, you lot!” from his bike at the back of the pack. 

Sam keeps his eyes on the ground in front of them; his voice is deep and calm but loud enough to be heard over We Found Love , “We have big dreams for this season, Jamie. Keeping our place in the Premier League is going to be tough. And yes, moving to a new country alone like I did is tough; standing up in front of you all last night and telling you how hard it was for me was tough, but it all feels less difficult when I know that my teammates understand me better, that you all have my back - on the field and off.” 

With a nod, Jamie returns his focus to the back of Isaac’s shirt, keeping pace with the captain as they near the summit. The thing is, Jamie’s not afraid of physical work; it's a pre-season training camp; he expected that he was going to be put through his paces, particularly now that they’re going up. The team need to be ready to prove they deserve their spot back in the Premier League. 

It's the fucking feelings shit Ted wants them to do that has Jamie shitting a brick. 

On their first night here, Ted brought them all together for a team dinner and orientation for the week ahead. 

“There’s so much love for each other at this club,” he’d said. “We stay positive; we stick tight, we don’t let anything in the cracks or anyone inside our heads. And we know our best football together is good enough to beat anyone. Anyone.” 

Jamie had nodded along with everyone else as Ted spoke, listening intently and proud of the football they’d played in the back half of last season.

“But part of us playing our best football together is playing football for each other. So this week, alongside the performance program devised by Coach Beard here - we’re going to get our bodies conditioned, and our hearts and minds, gentlemen - each day, we’ll hear from you, our players.” 

Ted had a projector set up with a keynote slide behind him featuring the training schedule for the week. He clicked the trackpad on his laptop, which triggered the schedule slide to add something called Triple H sessions each night after dinner. 

Counting off his fingers, Ted continues, “The H’s stand for Hero, Hardship and Highlight, and each day, we’ll hold a Triple H session where each of you will share three personal tales - one for each H - to the group.”

That was the moment when Jamie started to sweat. Ted went on to explain everything about the sessions, but internally, Jamie was feeling dread the longer the explanation went on. He was sure they’d already shared enough feelings to last a lifetime when they got rid of the treatment room ghosts; wasn’t that enough? 

And now he’s standing on the top of some stupid fucking Welsh mountain with the rest of the team, chest heaving for breath as he places the speaker down on the ground so that he can take one of the water bottles Roy is handing out. Jamie’s not looking forward to spending the rest of the day completing their training while internally panicking about what the fuck he’s going to say for his Triple H session. 

He knows that he’s in a better place with his teammates now, and his brain keeps trying to tell him that everyone who has spoken so far has had the full support of the entire team. But Jamie simply cannot imagine standing in front of a whole room and talking about his life the way Sam did last night without his guts feeling like someone has them in a vice-grip. 

Sam got up in front of everyone - had volunteered to go first - to talk about how much he admired his dad and how hard it was to leave home for the first time and be away from his father’s calming influence. Jamie is in awe of how good Sam is at this stuff, and in the exact same moment, he feels sick at the thought of having to follow suit. 

Jamie spends the rest of the day trying not to think about it; instead, he focuses on the training - Roy takes them all to a local club where Jamie spends hours being the first to line up shots, the first in line to run a drill. Single-minded in his focus; pivoting, tackling, sprinting, fucking sinking shots because it’s what he was put on this earth to do . And if Jamie tires himself out to the point that he doesn’t have the energy to think anymore, well, that’s just an added bonus, innit? 

They get free time in the afternoon each day and while he knows some of the lads head out into the village to explore and others have brought guitars and video games to pass the time until dinner, Jamie spends the time alone in his room, pouting at the three H’s in his notes app. 

He is outwardly supportive of all the lads - Richmond til we die and all that - but inside, the dread grows. He spends hours each night in his room, painstakingly tapping at his phone screen, trying to put down thoughts that feel like him - that will let his teammates know him.

The Triple H sessions keep happening, and somehow Jamie successfully manages to put off taking his turn. 

Isaac shares that his highlight was the moment Roy handed over the captaincy, and his hardship is that he worries that he isn’t living up to the trust the team has placed in him to lead them - especially when they have a bad game. 

Richard is nervous and stilted as he tells them that he still struggles with his English and feels self-conscious that he hasn’t picked it up as easily as some of the other international players. 

Jan’s grin is bright and wide, his teeth a white beacon of pride as he tells them about the moment he signed his first contract. 

Colin tries to play it off with humour and jokes, but he ultimately confesses that last season was a hardship for him; that he spent the season feeling like he was lacking and that Nate’s coaching style undermined his confidence in his abilities. 

One-by-one they each take their turn standing in front of the team, spilling their hopes, their fears, and the people who helped them achieve their dreams. Each story is met with a promise of acceptance and understanding. Every man is willing to share his story, and afterwards, they all speak with awe about watching their teammates cry or shake – and about how it felt to lay themselves bare.

Then suddenly, it’s the last night and Jamie has put his turn off for as long as possible. 

Jamie has stood in front of thousands of people on a football pitch, some baying for his blood and others cheering for him to score. He’s had cameras broadcasting his every move to millions of people. His ability to kick a penalty determining the outcome of a match and his teammates and coaches hanging all their hopes on his right foot. And the nerves of that don’t even come close to how Jamie feels right now. 

It feels like his heart is trying to claw its way out of his throat as he pulls at the collar of his black t-shirt. He’s dressed for this moment in a pair of plain jeans - no zippers, not even any rips - and a t-shirt, aiming for casual and feeling like he’s failed miserably as he pulls his phone out of his pocket and brings up the notes app. 


The room’s full attention is laser-focused on Jamie, and he feels a bead of sweat trickling down from his hair. 

“I - uh, I am gonna just read this ‘cause I’m fuckin’ packin’ it,” Jamie mumbles, bringing his free hand up to rub neurotically at his eyebrow. With a wince he braces himself and pushes on, “I’m no good with words either, so - yeah, I’m just- I’m gonna read.” 

He shifts on his feet, uncomfortable under so much scrutiny, and needing to get his restlessness out. 

“I don’t think I’ve mentioned this to any of you before, but, there was a time when I was thirteen - I gave up football. And I wasn’t sure I would ever go back.” 

There are a few gasps around the room, but Jamie’s too nervous to look up from his phone. 

“My mum, she’s my hero, yeah?” 

“And, I remember one day, I came home from school, right? And uh, me mum was there, sitting on the couch, just cryin’ her eyes out.” Jamie’s voice feels thick in his throat as he speaks, like the words are made of peanut butter. “I asked her what was wrong, and uh- when she told me what was going on, I just remember my whole world crashing down.” 

“I remember runnin’ to my room and just lying in bed and staring at the ceiling. Cancer, they said. In her neck - thyroid or whatever - and I remember her comin’ into my room and we cuddled in my bed for hours that night. I didn’t want to believe it. She was my everything - my “right-hand”, she worked hard to put food on our table, to get me to training.” 

He stops to swallow around the lump in his throat, and he feels his nerves start to boil over. Fuck this being vulnerable shit, Jamie would rather stick a lit cigarette in his eyeball.

“She never missed a match, always made sure she was rostered off from work for my matches. If she had time off, she’d take me down to the pitch and kick a footy with me - it didn’t matter if it was pouring with rain or if she was exhausted from work - she always tried to have time for me. Did her best for me.” 

The room is silent beside his own voice, he can hear his accent thickening even more as he gets lost in the memories of that time with his mum. The two of them against the world. 

“But yeah, she was sick, and she needed me. I stopped going to school for a while. I definitely stopped playing football. I just wanted to be with her all the time and football just didn’t seem that important anymore.” 

“I remember going with her to her doctor’s appointments, me nan tried to help out where she could, but I needed to step up and help out too. Learned to cook things that she could eat, and take care of her. The doctors said that the treatment might not work, that the medicine might be what would bring her undone.”

Jamie takes a moment to steady himself, a wry smile gracing his lips as he speaks, “When she told the doctor’s to fuck off and that she wasn’t giving up on her kid, I remember being in awe of her. How hard she fought; how sick she was, skinny with bleeding lips and thinning hair still trying to put food on our table.”

He licks his lips, “She said to me, ‘Whatever you do Jamie, go back and play football. Do it for me.’ Six months later, her cancer was gone and she’s still here today. The doctors said that she had long odds and that she beat them. She taught me to never give up, to always, always work my arse off.” 

He finally sneaks a look up from the notes in front of his face to look out at the sea of faces in front of him. They are all completely focussed on him, Isaac is trying to not draw attention to himself as he wipes his eyes with the sleeves of his hoodie, and Jamie has to quickly cast his gaze back at his phone before he needs to do the same.

“Nothing has ever motivated me more than her. I play football for my mum.” 

Wiping away a tear that somehow managed to escape, Jamie keeps going, he’s built up a momentum now. This is like ripping off the world’s biggest fuckin’ band-aid. “Right, now the Hardship.” 

He hears Colin whisper, “Wait, that wasn’t the hardship?” 

“I don’t want to be fake, yeah?” Jamie says. “We all took a massive step forward last season as a team, we’re connected - a brotherhood. I want you to know, ‘This is who the fuck I am’.”

One of his legs bounces up and down as he scrolls through his notes, and he takes a steadying breath, trying to focus his thoughts the same way he does on the pitch. 

“I grew up in a tiny, first-floor flat in a council estate in Manchester,” he starts, crossing his free arm across his chest and tucking his hand behind the elbow holding up his phone. “For as long I could remember, Mum worked two jobs - one at Sainsbury’s and then she’d work as a house cleaner in posh neighbourhoods for extra cash.”

Jamie looks up and finally gathers the courage to meet the eyes of everyone in the room. “I used to be so uncomfortable, ashamed and embarrassed of where I came from.” 

Jutting his chin up and setting his jaw, he feels raw and exposed - and his stance is a challenge to everyone in the room to say something about his upbringing. 

“We did the best we could with what we had, but other kids at school took the piss everyday, reminding me that I was poor as hell and had nothing.” 

Jamie looks down at his shuffling feet at the remembered shame, distant now but always ready to rear it’s ugly head whenever he thinks about it too hard. “I remember when I started at the academy I used to walk a different route home, about a mile out of my way, just so that no one at my posh school or my teammates knew where I lived.” 

He snorts and his lips twist into something that might be an approximation of a wry smile, but feel more like a grimace, “As if they couldn’t already tell by everything about me. Lucky I was good at football.” 

“When Mum got sick - for a while - money was really tight like, more tight than it was before. I used to do our laundry and put it on a shared clothesline in our estate. So many of our clothes got stolen, that I used to go into the high street with me mates and steal clothes. I’d rip the tags off and smuggle them out, just so that mum and I could have some clothes to replace the others.”

Jamie takes a shaky inhale, he’s proper crying now and the hand holding his phone is shaking a little - making the small letters on his screen blur and wobble. He pinches the screen to zoom in before wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. He can hear a few sniffs in the silence that hangs heavy and breathless between himself and the other occupants of the room.

“I know when I was on loan to Richmond - and even when I was at Man City - I was hard in a lot of ways. You have to be to grow up like I did. It would have been so easy for me to go down the wrong path and I know that I nearly did that when I was at Richmond the first time, I wasn’t here to make friends.” 

He looks up briefly to meet eyes with Roy, who is watching silently from his spot at the very back wall of the conference room they’ve hired. His arms are crossed over his chest, brow furrowed but listening intently. Jamie can’t help but wither a bit under Roy’s intense gaze, the sensation of airing all his ‘dirty laundry’ kicking his nerves back into gear. 

“I know it’s no excuse and I know that I should probably spend more time with you lads, but I hang out with my mates outside football a lot. They’ve all been through it with me, and when we were comin’ up all we had was each other. I lost people close to me growin’ up where I did; I saw a lot of bad shit. It was hard gettin’ out, and it’s hard to talk about.”

Bringing up these old hurts in front of people he admires, people he respects, well, Jamie thinks if he tries to meet anyone’s eyes at the moment, he might come undone entirely.  

“I was so proud the day I got my first big paycheck. I promised Mum that the first thing I would do was look after her. ‘Got her out of the council estate; she has a little house now.” 

He stops and smiles fondly and lets out a sniffle before laughing a little. “She has a garden for the first time in her life, when she first saw it she couldn’t get the smile off her face. My hard work has given us a life very different from the one we remember, and even if I achieve nothing else in me whole life, I’m really happy I was able to give her that.” 

He’s on the home stretch now - the last few minutes of the match, the clock running down, and he’s only got a few more minutes of work ahead of him to bring it home. Running his hand through his hair, he scrolls a bit further down his notes and begins to smile as he’s reminded of the memory he’s chosen. 

“I’ve got a lot of moments I coulda picked for my highlight, pretty much all of them would be about football - scorin’ goals and winnin’ matches.” 

The room breaks out into soft laughter, hesitant to break the spell that's captured the room, but enough that Jamie flashes a quick grin around the sea of faces before continuing. 

“I think the highlight for me was our final match last season, and getting the opportunity to give Dani that penalty for us - have him get us back into the Prem - that was a special moment for me.” 

Dani lets out an excited woop at the mention of his name and Jamie looks up, scanning the room to find his smiling face out in the crowd - Dani’s eyes crinkling at the corners the way they do when his smile is at full force. Jamie can’t help but smile back. 

“I’ve been proud of my football skills, I’ve been proud of how hard I work, of the things I have earned. But that moment? Being the kind of person to give up the glory in order to give something special to someone else? That moment was the first time I’ve ever been proud of the person I am.”

He wrinkles his nose slightly, “I know that everyone here knows ‘m not one for reading or nothin’, but I was in my room the other night tryin’ to find the words to talk to you all today because all week I’ve been shittin’ meself just thinkin’ bout doing this."

A wave of chuckles breaks out across the room and he feels the sudden rush of confidence to push on, “But, I came across a quote, “Humility doesn’t mean thinking less of yourself, it means thinking of yourself less.” And I think that in my time at Richmond, that’s what I’ve learned. I’ve found a brotherhood, a group of people who have taught me what it means to really belong somewhere, not because of what I can do, but because of who I am.” 

“I think in that moment, I was finally back to bein’ the kind of person I was when me mum got sick. That I’d finally grown up to be the man she raised; someone who gives to others and takes care of people, not just himself. And that’s why that moment, that match, is what I chose for my highlight.” 

He lets out one final nervous breath and lowers his phone back down to his side, his fingers tapping at the case restlessly. 

With a shrug, Jamie looks up. “So yeah, that’s my Triple H.” 

The whole team are scrambling over chairs and each other in their haste to reach him. He’s tackled from the side by Moe first - the slight man’s agility winning out even over Jan’s long limbs. And then Jamie is crushed under a dog pile of teary, sniffling footballers - Jamie is pretty sure that Richard is wiping his nose on the back of Jamie’s t-shirt, but he couldn’t give a fuck. 

His team have his back. 

They know him - who he is and where he’s come from. 

And instead of running as fast as they could in the opposite direction, they’ve run toward him. Embraced him like a brother. And Jamie feels kind of like he’s drained a wound - one that he didn’t know was festering inside him, even with all the progress he made last year. 

They all lay on the faded carpet of the conference room for a while longer, just being close to one another, entirely free of judgement. Jamie has never experienced anything like it in his life before. It’s made all his pissin’ and moanin’ about this task worth it. 

Eventually, they all start to untangle and Jamie can’t help but smile as he’s helped up off the floor by Sam, whose own smile is bright and full of pride. “We are all so proud of you Jamie, you are our brother.” 

The others all chime in with their own words of affirmation for Jamie as they all head back to their chairs to gather up their things. He knows he has a massive grin on his face as he helps Isaac ‘sweep the sheds’ by picking up any lingering rubbish or belongings lying around in the room. 

Sweeping the sheds is Isaac’s new thing for the season, the team must always leave a dressing room or facility in the same way they found it - not expecting others to clean up after them - and Jamie can respect that. 

He gets a few more pats on the back, and a stoic nod from Roy as he drops some scraps of paper in the bin by the door before heading up to Dani’s room to drop off the jumper he left behind. 

As he wanders the halls of a little hotel in who-fucking-knows-where Wales, it feels like not just the beginning of a new season, but a new phase of his career. Perhaps a new phase of his life.