We finally had a full squad of fourteen in training again the week before the Cannons match. It was good to have everyone back – for a start, things were much easier with a full complement of players.
I’d expected Sinead to be relieved at the return of the internationals, but, if anything she’d gotten more frantic as the week went on. It hadn’t gone unnoticed by anyone. Usually our training in the run-up to a match was specific to the team that would be playing that weekend. But Sinead had been rotating us Chasers so much I’d had a full practice with almost every plausible trio. It was peculiar – almost as though she wasn’t sure who she was going to play. That assumption seemed to be the correct one, as she didn’t make a team announcement that Wednesday like she normally did.
“Maybe someone should ask her what’s going on,” Della said in a low voice at the end of the day. She, Alfie, Cato and I had all hung back, clearly all wondering if anybody else was having the same thoughts. “Alf, you’re captain, you should do it-”
“If she wanted to take me into her confidence, she’d have done it,” he reasoned, giving a blasé shrug. “You should go, you’re Head Chaser and that’s the position she seems most uncertain about...”
But I wasn’t so sure that was the case. Now I came to think about it, I’d seen everyone else practice in a match set-up just as much as I had. Cato clearly felt the same, as he shifted awkwardly on his feet.
“Junior, you should go,” Della said suddenly.
I stared at her, taken-aback.
“Me? Why me? I hardly think I’m her favourite person in the world right now, how would I be of any use?”
Della smiled slightly.
“But that’s exactly why you’re the best person. Let’s face it, you screwed up big time. But she still took you back. She doesn’t do that with just anyone. I’d say you are one of her favourites...”
I frowned, and looked around at Alfie and Cato ... but they looked just as convinced.
“I can’t ask her; I’ve only been here a few months. It would look like I was imposing myself too much,” Cato said.
I could certainly imagine that Cato, with his large frame, had that impact in most situations.
“Della’s right, Jim. You should ask her,” Alfie agreed. “You know what she’s like; she’ll talk to you. Plus, you know where her office is,” he added cheekily.
I scowled at him.
“Alright,” I said with a sigh, “though I’m not sure what I’ll find out. She’s probably just hesitant about playing me. She probably regrets taking me back-”
“Bollocks.” Della gave me a friendly smack around the head. “Just go!”
“Thanks for the support,” I muttered, and headed out of the changing rooms and up the corridor to Sinead’s office. I had absolutely no idea what I was meant to say – how could I question our coach’s decision not to announce the team as early as usual? What if it looked like I was impatient to get a game, despite my promise to willingly sit on the sidelines?
Her office door was ajar. I poked my head round it to find her sitting at her desk with her head in her hands, gripping her hair tightly. I cleared my throat awkwardly, and she jerked her head up.
“Oh, James, it’s you,” she said. “Is everything alright?”
She looked flustered, which was peculiar; Sinead was never flustered. I noticed that her desk was covered with what I assumed were various game plans. She wasn’t getting bothered about our tactics for the Cannons game of all things, was she?
“Yeah, it’s fine,” I replied. “We were just wondering when you were going to announce the team for the match on Saturday...”
She leaned back in her chair, and let out a loud sigh.
“Come in,” she said. “Shut the door behind you.”
I did so, and gingerly took a seat opposite her.
“I’ll be frank with you, James; I don’t know who’s playing on Saturday.”
“Is it that you can’t decide whether to play me?”
“You? James, you’re definitely playing, against the Cannons and the Kestrels. In fact, the way this is going, I might end up playing Jules as well. Bloody hell, if I wasn’t going to play you...” She shuddered. “No, it’s these ridiculous playing time regulations...”
There were international rules regulating the game, concerned chiefly with player welfare. One of them put a limit on the number of games a player could play in the six week period before an international tournament such as the World Cup. This meant that, as Brigid had hinted previously, Sinead would be forced to rest Ryan, Della and the other four internationals during our last lot of games. The rule was widely unpopular, partly because players felt it made them rusty and would prefer the option to play, but mainly because in a sport with timeless matches it seemed pretty pointless trying to regulate how much Quidditch someone played in any given period.
“Seeker shouldn’t be a problem, because I alternate the boys anyway, and they should only need one match off each. So I’ll play Klaus against the Kestrels, and Stefan against the Cannons and the Bats. I’m just worried that if the Cannons match goes on for too long, the Bulgarians might ask me to rest Stefan for two matches, which isn’t necessarily a problem but the Germans could do the same with Klaus if the Kestrels game is a long one as well.”
“They could do that?” I frowned.
“Course they could.” She sighed. “The regulations only state the minimum; now we’re in the World Cup training period the players are under their countries’ jurisdiction. If they wanted to make themselves look good they could argue they’re being generous in even letting us play them at all, because they don’t have to do that.” She pulled a face. “It’s bollocks, James, it’s an absolute load of bollocks. Are they trying to ruin our domestic game?”
“I’m guessing you can’t overrule them...”
“Oho, there’s no chance of me doing that. You know what that would mean.”
I did. Any manager who dared go against the regulations incurred fines, and bans for the players. It was the regulations which gave the international sides chief authority over their players at times like this, and thus the ability to pull their players out of any club games they wanted to.
“I’ve had a good rapport with the Germans since I signed Della four years ago, so I’m hoping they’ll be sympathetic to the fact both our Seekers are internationals, and be prepared to let us play Klaus for two games if we need to. But they’re not obliged to, and that’s the worry. But that’s out of my hands, so I can’t think too much about them.
“The trouble is, it’s easy to get sucked into permutations and tactics, and how long should we let each game run for anyway? I know we’d normally string it out against the Cannons, but we can’t do that this time. We’ll have to make it a short one.”
“But surely we need to build up our points difference?” I suggested.
“We can’t risk it, otherwise the people on high might try pulling the guys out of the other two matches, and we can’t have that. Not against the Kestrels and the Bats, of all sides. No, we’re going to have to make the Cannons as short a match as possible. Say, an hour tops? We need the points, but at the same time we’re top of the table; we’ll just have to back ourselves to stay there.”
“But what if other teams pull ahead of us through long matches against other teams-”
“We’ll have to take that risk. I need my strongest team possible against the Kestrels and the Bats – and more to the point, I need a Seeker! So, the Cannons match will have to be a short one, to make sure Stefan can face the Bats two weeks later.”
“Okay.” I frowned. “But surely everyone else is easy, then? Just rest them all against the Cannons; we can beat them even with the full reserve team-”
“No can do.” She sighed again. “That wouldn’t be enough of a break. It would make a mockery of the system; the managements would be sure to make me rest them for longer.”
“So how is it a long enough break for Klaus?”
“Because he won’t be playing in the Bats match either,” she reminded me.
“This is crazy...”
“You’re telling me? It’s threatening to mess up our entire season. Let’s take Beater. I can’t use the Cannons match alone as Cato and Cleo’s rest period, which means I’ll have to rest them against the Kestrels, because they have to play against the Lynches, there’s no doubt about that. And that leaves us in a sticky situation.”
“Keira’s not affected by this, is she?”
“Nah, she’ll be fine to play. She’s just a coach for England, it won’t affect her. And I’m not worried about playing her, she’s a class act...”
“But you’re worried about Jake.”
“I’m worried about Jake.”
Jake Jenkins was our fourth Beater. He was the same age as Roxanne and, like her, was in his first full season with us, having signed on as a reserve in the middle of last season after leaving Hogwarts. He looked good in training but, unlike Roxanne, he hadn’t played a game for us yet. If Sinead was going to rest both Cato and Cleo at the same time, she’d be forced to throw Jake in at the deep end.
“I make his first match a must-win against the Kestrels? It’s madness, utter madness. And then there’s you Chasers. I have to rest Ryan and Della. I need them both playing against the Bats; my best Chaser unit requires them. But can I rest them both against the Kestrels? You’ve never played with Roxanne and Julia; in fact, I can’t even remember the last time you and Jules were in the same line-up!”
“Actually, not as long ago as the last time I played with Roxanne,” I pointed out.
“Yes, but you and Roxie have four years of constant play under your belts. I know it was only at Hogwarts but I don’t underestimate that kind of experience, especially when you take all your training into account. No, I’m not at all worried about you and Roxanne as a combo. It’s the third person I can’t decide on. The trouble is, I don’t know if I can resist the temptation to throw Ryan in for one of those games. If I’m going to big up the four years you and Roxanne had...”
“Ryan was our head Chaser for two of those years,” I finished. “You want to see us three playing together again.” I couldn’t hide my grin.
“It’s the most likely combination involving you and Roxanne to be successful,” she summed up. “Which suggests I should play you three against the Kestrels, and you, Roxie and Della against the Cannons. But I don’t know if the Irish would play ball and let me off.”
“You played for them!” I pointed out. “Surely they’d let you off?”
“Totally different management-”
“Yeah, your ex-teammate.”
“Desmond Ryan doesn’t do favouritism.”
“But surely he’d understand that you have to play Ryan against the Kestrels-”
“But I don’t,” she said dully. “In terms of mere numbers, I have enough Chasers to rest him against the Kestrels. The fact that I don’t want to, won’t be relevant. And besides, if he lets me off, then the Kestrels and the Bats will put pressure on him to let them off too, and that could create a sticky situation, what with their international numbers.”
The Bats and the Kestrels had a reasonably even split of the Irish squad. The Bats had the Lynch brothers, along with two of the squad’s Chasers, Aisling Quigley and Fiona O’Sullivan. The Kestrels, meanwhile, had the fourth Chaser, Shane Connolly, along with the first choice Seeker Brianna Keily and Keeper Aidan O’Hare. The Seeker match-up would be slightly better for us against the Bats, but they had the extra Beater power to counteract that advantage. Likewise, the Bats’ Keeper was easier to get past than O’Hare was for the Kestrels, but the Bats’ Chasers meant it was harder to get possession of the Quaffle in the first place. All in all, both teams were tough to beat in their own way.
But the Bats would be tougher. That was why Sinead wanted her first choice team up against them. Unfortunately, it looked as though that meant compromising our team against the Kestrels.
But who was her first team these days? Certainly the Bagmans, Alfie, Della and Ryan were nailed on starters in an ideal line-up, while Stefan and Klaus were interchangeable. But what had happened to my spot? I’d seemingly be playing against the Cannons and the Kestrels ... but would I get the Bats match? Or had Roxanne earned that right?
“I’ve got more chance of playing Della against the Kestrels, and resting her against the Cannons,” Sinead mused, pulling me out of my thoughts. “The Germans like us; they’d probably let me off. And the Kestrels know a lot more about Ryan; that might work against us. But what if the Germans don’t let me? And more importantly, what if they do, and the Kestrels match goes on too long and they want her rested for longer? What if Desmond wants Ryan rested for more than just one match?” She groaned, and buried her head in her hands.
“You’ve been thinking about this a lot, haven’t you?” I said.
“Three weeks. Three bloody weeks of thinking and rethinking and permutations and tactics. I nearly had a hernia when I first realised how bad it would be. Imagine how terrifying it was when you were AWOL.”
“Guess I’ve done you a favour, being dropped by England,” I said wryly.
“It does make it easier knowing I can run you into the ground,” she admitted, sitting upright again. “Not that I want you to think I’m pleased in any way about the situation; you know I’d much rather see you in the squad.”
I smiled appreciatively.
“What do you think?” she suddenly asked.
“I – what?” I frowned, wondering if I’d misheard what she’d said.
“What do you think I should do?”
My frown deepened.
“You – you’re asking me?”
“Of course I am. You’re one of my team, aren’t you? You’re one of the most tactically minded players I’ve got. I want to know what you make of it.”
I was floored. Coming back into the dressing room, I’d barely expected to play, let alone be privy to such an important tactical conversation.
“Okay,” I said nervously, edging forwards a little in my seat. “Seeker’s sorted, right?”
“So long as nobody moans, Seeker’s sorted,” she agreed. “But that means getting the game lengths right.”
“We have to make the Cannons match short, for Stefan, you mean?”
“In an ideal world, they’d all be short. But then we run the risk of being told we’ve not rested the players for long enough. I’ll just have to cross my fingers and hope the Bulgarians are nice to us.”
“It seems unfair, given that both of our Seekers are internationals,” I said.
“The rule is unfair. In fact, it’s totally ridiculous. If only it was by hours, not matches ... but then, you’d still incur the same problem of not being able to predict how long a match will be. It’s just not practical, this regulation. But we have to comply, and so does everyone else. So, as I’ve said, Seeker is straight in my head. Beater?”
I paused for a moment.
“Keira and Jakey will probably have to face the Kestrels, right?”
“It seems so.”
“Okay. Play them against the Cannons as well.”
She stared at me.
“Are you mad?”
“The Cannons are easy to beat!” I reasoned. “It’ll give Jake some match experience, which will make the Kestrels game seem less daunting for him.”
“You’d take the risk?”
“Would you have signed Jake if you didn’t think he could do it?” I asked.
“It’s not that I don’t think he can do it. It’s just, if I’m going to give him his debut, I’d rather it was match fourteen of twenty-four, not match ten of twelve.”
“It’s either match ten or match eleven,” I pointed out. “And he’s made of strong stuff. Plus, this is the Cannons we’re talking about. And Keira knows her game. She’s a Broadmoor, she can deal with anything.”
“There’s only so much pressure you can put on a player’s shoulders,” Sinead reasoned.
“Still, if you rest Cato and Cleo for both matches, there’s no way Demelza can complain. And if you have to play the second string Beaters against the harder opposition, why not give them the easier opposition first?”
“True,” she sighed, picking up her quill and adding to her notes. “I’ll admit, it’s a good thought. Risky, but good. And it leaves the Bagmans to play against the Bats. Which is the most important thing, at the end of the day. I can’t leave them out against the Bats.”
Against the Lynches, in other words.
“And Chaser? Come on, James, pick your teammates for me.”
“No pressure, eh?” I said lightly.
“Now you know how I feel,” she said sourly. “Someone’s got to make the decision, and Merlin knows I’ve gotten far too tangled up in permutations to decide it for myself.”
“Me and Roxanne for Cannons and Kestrels, right?” I started.
“That’s the easy bit.”
“I know; I was trying to put off thinking.”
She smiled wryly.
“You don’t think Desmond Ryan will be nice enough to let Ryan sit out the Cannons match and be done with it?”
“Not if it’s too short. Which it has to be for Stefan’s sake.”
“But you think the Germans will let you use that as Della’s rest game?”
“Possibly. If I sweet talk them.”
“Right, well get sweet talking, play Ryan against the Cannons and Della against the Kestrels. And then we cross our fingers and hope the Kestrels match isn’t too long, either.”
“That’s leaving a lot of things to chance,” she said edgily.
“I don’t think so,” I said confidently. “I’d back us to wrap things up against the Kestrels reasonably quickly-”
“But would you?”
She had a peculiar expression on her face. It wasn’t one I’d seen on her before, and it took me a moment to twig what it was – fear.
She wasn’t scared about incurring a fine. She was scared about putting her players under an enforced ban.
More to the point, she was scared at having to take too many risks. Be overly cautious, rest too many first team players for too many games, and risk losing the League. Or back the team to wrap things up quickly – and be forced to play our most important match of the season without our best players.
She was scared of losing.
“We can do this.” I looked her straight in the eye. “I know we can. We’re good enough – we’re more than good enough. I promise you, Klaus can keep that Kestrels match a short one. We give ourselves an hour to make hay against the Cannons before Stef catches the Snitch. We make sure the Kestrels match runs for about two – not too long, not too short. Then, we have all the time in the world to play with against the Bats, with our strongest team. That’s more than enough time. We’ve got a hundred points on them in the table already; we’ll be starting that match from a position of strength. “We won’t need to be under any pressure to win. We’ll do it. Trust me.”
She stared at me for a moment, as though the words were sinking in. Then she nodded.
“I trust you,” she whispered.
Sinead was still just as nervous the morning of the Cannons match. She’d announced the team on Thursday morning, and we’d had two solid days of preparation. We all felt confident, even Jakey, who was making his first appearance for the team. But confidence alone wasn’t enough to shed Sinead’s worry that this would backfire.
I knew she felt guilty about putting so much pressure on Stefan. She was giving him the responsibility of wrapping up the game within the hour. Of course, it also meant he was free to catch the Snitch the first instant he saw it, instead of holding back, which I knew pleased him. For a Seeker, there was nothing worse than having to hold back while still trying to prevent your opponent catching the Snitch.
But it meant that the pressure would be on if he hadn’t caught it within the first fifty or so minutes. And that was a kind of pressure Seekers didn’t like.
“You know,” I muttered to Sinead, “you could possibly give him a bit more leeway than one hour; I’m sure the Bulgarians won’t mind-”
“No,” she said firmly. “I’m risking enough as it is. I’m not taking more risks than I need to.”
Truth be told, I was nervous too. These hadn’t necessarily been my tactics alone, but I’d convinced Sinead they were the right ones. If things went wrong, it was surely going to be my fault just as much as hers.
And why, oh why, did the Cannons match have to be involved? These were always family affairs; everyone loved coming to watch me play against them, mostly because they enjoyed being able to tease Uncle Ron when we inevitably won. It was a huge amount of pressure for my first game back. Not to mention that today of all days was Albus’ twentieth birthday.
“If Uncle Ron stops inviting us round to give us the gossip about our parents that they refuse to tell us themselves, I’m blaming you,” Roxanne told me in the changing room before the game.
“It’ll be fine,” I reassured her. “He’s used to his beloved Cannons losing by now. Besides, you know he enjoys telling us about the family’s mishaps far too much to stop.”
Luckily, I was used to playing alongside Ryan and Roxanne by now. It had been like second nature to us back when I was fifteen. Now, of course, I was far more used to playing with Della instead of Roxanne, but I still remembered the way the three of us had played for Gryffindor all those years ago.
There were actually a lot of similarities in the way that Ryan and I went about playing alongside Roxanne, in comparison to Della. A lot of tactics and plays were decided based on relative sizes. Della and Roxanne interchanging didn’t affect this – whichever one who played with me and Ryan would be the smallest of the trio. This made the switch near enough seamless. The only difference was Roxanne’s speed on a broom – she was even faster than Ryan – so a couple of moves which had previously used his speed had been adapted, so that she was the main player. Others had to remain as they were, because they also required his bulk.
I wasn’t feeling too worried about our part in the match. My concern was more over Stefan – and Jake. He seemed fairly confident, but for all I knew that was just a front. After all, I did the same, as did most players. It wasn’t as though this match would be particularly hard, but that didn’t make a difference for a player making his debut.
He didn’t know he was also playing against the Kestrels. I agreed with Sinead on that decision – one match was bad enough, without landing the added pressure on his shoulders. Let him at least get this match out of the way first, before telling him he was also to play against half of Ireland’s first choice team in a must-win match next weekend.
Sinead called us all together just before we left the changing rooms, for her regular pre-match pep talk.
“I have a lot of faith in this team,” she said. “You’re all damn good players, and none of you needs to worry about a thing. You all know your individual roles; just go out there and perform them, and don’t let the mind games get to you. And that means not becoming too complacent. Yes, they’re the Cannons, but if we’re too confident we could easily trip up. We need this win. On paper, it’s easily done. So go out there, play your best, and put it into practice.”
In reality, Stefan’s game was an easy one. Because the Cannons’ Seeker – like the rest of their team – was so rubbish, he had the luxury of being able to put off his Snitch capture for as long as possible – there had been little chance of his opponent catching it first, even before he was forced out of the game after falling for three Wronski Feints. The amusement on Sinead’s face was unmissable; after all, she’d seen a Krum pull that trick before.
We were twenty goals up by the time Stefan finally caught the Snitch with a positively lazy gesture, with four minutes left on his stopwatch. The result, coupled with the Bats’ scoreline at Portree, meant that we pulled out on them by another sixty points in the table.
“But they rested a lot of their players too,” Sinead murmured to me in the changing rooms. “And I think they’ll do the same against the Harpies next week. It means we’ll definitely be facing their first team when we play them-”
“But we’ll be playing ours, too,” I pointed out. “Besides, by weakening their team now, they’re putting all of their eggs into one basket. They could be clawing back that points difference, but instead they’re letting it slip. It means they have to do more against us-”
“We lead them by one-sixty. If we played them tomorrow, they’d need to catch the Snitch while two goals ahead of us. That’s nothing in the professional game.”
I smiled, with an air of confidence that I didn’t truly feel.
“They’ve still got to catch the Snitch, though.”
“James!” Maddie cried, flinging her arms round my neck as soon as I emerged from the Cannons’ away team changing rooms. “Don’t ever put me through that again; I was worried I wouldn’t have a prom date!”
I laughed, and gave her a tight hug.
“You will, don’t worry,” I said sincerely. “Besides, I’m sure you had an alternative lined up...”
“Yup, I was all set to ask Alfie,” she said with a cheeky grin. “Good to see you back, though. You played well out there!”
“Thanks,” I said, smiling back at her. “I felt a bit rusty, but I guess that was only to be expected. I was just lucky to play. Are your exams over yet?”
“Last one was yesterday,” she said, her face brightening. “And Lily and Kit are all done too. We’re going to go on a road trip somewhere next week. I have no idea where; I’m just going to drive, I’ll let the others tell me where we’re going. It should be fun!”
Maddie liked spontaneity.
“You won’t miss the Kestrels match, now, will you?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.
“You got us tickets?” she retorted. “You’re lucky we couldn’t make the three you decided to miss, young man, or you’d be in big trouble! Where else are we meant to get our tickets from?”
“I’m sure you could sweet-talk Cato Bagman,” I smirked.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she said sharply, her cheeks tingeing with pink.
“Nothing, just that you seem to prefer him over me these days. Why, should it have meant anything?” I teased.
“Of course not. Don’t be daft.” She smiled faintly, her cheeks still flushed. “We’ll be at the Kestrels match, so long as we have tickets. Someone might have to come and fetch us from wherever we end up, mind.”
“I’ll be on standby,” I promised her. “And the Bats match?”
“If you don’t get us tickets for that one, James Sirius, then you’ll be in big trouble.”
“What if it overruns, and you miss your dance?”
“Sod the bloody dance, I just want to see you win!” she said animatedly.
I grinned at her enthusiasm.
“Don’t worry, I’ll get you tickets...” I trailed off as I raised my head, and saw two people having an animated discussion at the other end of the pitch. “Oh, bloody hell.”
“What is it?” She followed my line of sight. “Is that Freddie and Brigid? What on earth are they arguing about?”
“I have no idea,” I lied, wondering why the hell they’d chosen the aftermath of the Cannons match of all times for an argument. I had a funny feeling I knew exactly what they were discussing; if I was right, I was going to curse Freddie the next time I saw him for having such piss-poor timing.
Ryan joined us, looking stony-faced.
“I know he’s your cousin,” he said flatly, “but if he’s breaking my little sister’s heart...”
“He’s not,” I said firmly.
“Really? Because it doesn’t look like it from here-”
“He ... he’s not,” I repeated, less certain this time.
Because after all, how was Brigid supposed to react to Freddie telling her he was ‘too scared’ to love her?