The strange case of a disappearing Jelle

There was one story that wouldn’t go away:

The red neon sign outside the hotel bedroom window had flashed on and off all night but somehow Frank had managed to drop off to sleep despite the luminous glow in his room that went on, off, on off, with its endless recurrence. It was like it was some sort of scene from a cheap American gangster movie where someone is holed up hiding from the Feds, or one of those Mickey Spillane dime paperback novels from the fifties.

In his subconscious he heard a phone ringing. It’s a dream he thought and wanted to ignore it; but in fact it wasn’t. Groggily he picked up the receiver as if it was some kind of Pavlovian response.  In his job, if the phone rang you answered it. But while Pavlov always gave his dog a biscuit, Frank more often than not ended up with nothing.

Frank was puzzled by the phone call. As a Director of Football he was well used to phone calls at all hours, secret meetings in shadowy places, drop points and disguises, he had more hats in his suitcase than Tommy Cooper; but a phone call at 3 in the morning was different. And, it was a voice he didn’t recognise, a thick heavily accented voice. Not necessarily someone who was actually thick, just the voice.

He couldn’t place the accent. It definitely wasn’t central European or Russian, possibly somewhere nearer, not German either, France or Belgium maybe he wondered.  Whoever it was knew Frank’s name or at least the gist of it. The neon sign continued with its unending repetition… on, off, on, off… Frank’s mouth felt dry and gritty like the bottom of a birdcage. The hammering in his head made worse by that damned neon sign.

‘Ees that Mr Parland,’ the soft voice asked him? Frank groaned, his brain was still half asleep. Being a scouser he was well used to late nights and being disturbed, Liverpool was after all the city that never slept, half the city were out nicking hubcaps, the other half were out looking for them. The cops there had a tough job. Their hubcaps weren’t safe either. City of Culture my ass he thought. At 3 in the morning in a cheap downtown hotel room where it was lino not carpet on the floor, this was a phone call Frank could do without.  

‘We need to meet,’ said the voice. ‘Is thees possible, somewhere quiet, discreet, where neither of us ees known. ‘

‘Who is this,’ Frank asked groggily, the migraine pounding away, the red on and off light now thoroughly irritating him.

‘For the moment, just call me Hercule, it’s not my real name but it will do for the moment. I have a deal to make with you. You are a football director of Burnley – yes?’

Frank nodded, his head clearing, his senses rapidly awakening; his alertness now almost on max. Whoever it was might be another football agent eager to do a deal. In the football world chances had to be snapped up, every avenue explored. A frog might turn out to be a prince although as a general rule Frank disliked the French, always blockading Calais, always blocking roads with burning tyres and ruining holidays. And where were they on a wet February Tuesday up in soggy Lancashire at somewhere like Gigg Lane; although Cantona was a rare exception.   

‘Are you still there,’ the voice asked. ‘I have a player I would like you to sign, he scores goals, he ees an international; he has experience of ze championsheep already. ‘

‘His name,’ Frank asked, by now intrigued. Proven strikers were rarer than a member of the House of Lords that didn’t claim expenses.

‘Vossen, Jelle Vossen,’ was the reply.

Frank gulped. His mind had an encyclopaedic grasp of players everywhere, all over Europe, from Bootle to Blankenberge.  He’d once been to Blankenberge, and decided he preferred Bootle. He was a home lad at heart.

He thought quickly by now sitting on the edge of the bed. Vossen was quality. He thought about lighting a cigarette but then remembered – he didn’t smoke. Hadn’t he done a season at Middlesbrough and scored a shedload. His mind whirled. Sean would need to know this. At the moment they had Sordell and Jutkiewicz up front but both had more chance of scoring in a brothel, even in a Fazakerly brothel where the average hooker age was at least 60.

‘OK Hercule, we’ll meet. Get yourself over to England and find the wind farm up on the Burnley moors by the Long Causeway out of Red Lees, take a left at the Kettledrum. Two nights from now, late at night when it’s dark, the only people there will be dogging and won’t notice us.  The guy in the back seat will be Sean. But you… you come alone. We’ll be in a directors car B1 BTN but people think it’s Joey Barton’s so that’ll keep them confused. Burnley folk are easily confused. It seems to be genetic. Believe it or not folk from Blackburn are even worse.’

Frank and Sean couldn’t wait. Who was this mystery guy? Good strikers that could actually score didn’t grow on trees.

There was no moon, just darkness. For two days they’d bitten their finger nails and kept quiet. The faint outlines of cars emerged from the gloom and mist of the moors as they turned into the car park by the wind farm.  Years earlier this was where Ted Bates met Brian O'Neil and Bob Lord to fix his move to Southampton, although back then there was only the wind and the sheep not the great monstrous windmills.

Both were nervous and apprehensive. This was Pendle Witch pointy-hat country and they’d be up there at dead of night. If they disappeared who would know? They’d arranged a fool proof signal. They’d flash their lights three times so that mystery-man Hercule would know which car to approach. But both Sean and Frank had forgotten this was dogging country. They flashed the lights and within a moment three other cars flashed theirs.

‘What the f*ck,’ exclaimed Frank. ‘It’s worse than my hotel room.’

‘Wait,’ said Sean. ’SSSShhhh someone’s coming.’ The tiny footsteps stopped and something bumped into the car and then to their surprise the car began to rock back and forth, then side to side, quite gently but rhythmically. ‘What the hell is that,’ Sean asked. A pair of eyes stared in through the glass.

Sean gasped. ‘Christ it’s got horns. It’s huge. What the hell is it?’

This was something neither he nor Frank had bargained for. He wound his window down enough to poke his head out and take a look.

‘Goddam it’s a sheep rubbing its backside on the car. Frank this is giving me the willies up here. This is worse than Millwall. ’ The sheep wandered off into the murk. Sean wound the window back up mentally deciding he’d give this just another 5 minutes. He prided himself on being one tough hombre, he’d served time in Chesterfield, but every man has his limits.

More footsteps crunched on the gravel and then a hand tapped at the window that Frank then wound down. A woman looked in, not unattractive, coat unfastened, maybe a bit heavy with the lipstick, cleavage showing provocatively, a cleavage that said come up and see me sometime and let’s see what happens.

Frank gasped, stared at the cleavage in awe and remembering why he was there asked, ‘Are you Hercule?’

The woman looked puzzled but replied huskily,’ I can be anybody you want baby.’

More footsteps, another figure emerged out of the mist. This was getting busier than Charter Walk on half-price day. ‘Sorry lady,’ said an accented voice. ‘It’s me that’s here to meet these guys.’

The blonde looked disgusted. ‘Each to their own I suppose,’ she said haughtily and flounced back to her car. She was disappointed. The ginger one, silent in the back of the car, had looked strong and masculine.

‘If you’re Hercule, get in,’ said Frank.

‘Actually the name is Jelle.’ This time the voice was a tad nervous and wobbly.

The cold air surged into the car as the stranger ignored the woman and got in. Frank and Sean chivered and rubbed their hands.

The stranger took off the scarf that had covered his face. ‘Christ you’re Jelle Vossen,’ Sean exclaimed.’ What the hell are you doing here?’ He’d been in the game for years and had never experienced anything like this, not even in the hell-hole of Watford and its unfathomable one-way system. Meetings at midnight in a car park in the middle of the moors, being rubbed up by sheep, had never been in his job description.

‘I need a move,’ the blonde guy announced. ‘Let me explain.’ At this point another face peered through the windscreen, another woman.

‘Wow do I get to choose,’ she said as she saw the three of them, ‘is this a sort of lucky dip?’

Frank wound the window down to say shoo go away, we’re just having a business meeting. More cold air flooded the car. ‘Business meeting,’ she chuckled. ‘That’s a new one. Well I’ll take the young one with the square head, if you change your minds.’

She vanished into the mist on high heels that accented the shapely legs and short skirt. Neither Frank nor Sean was at all interested in her offer. There was only one kind of scoring that mattered to them.

‘Talk,’ said Frank, ‘Why us?’

‘It’s complicated. I play for Genk but want to move to Bruges. But the two clubs hate each other, a bit like you and Blackburn Rovers.  Genk won’t sell me to Bruges but will sell me to you. Then when the deal is done and I’ve played just a couple of games you sell me to Bruges. Bruges will pay you the same that you pay Genk. You can’t lose. And then when it’s all done, in a few months I’ll treat you to a Hot Chocolate in Bruges. It’s famous for Hot Chocolate there.’

Frank and Sean looked at each other. A Hot Chocolate would go down well right at this minute. It was bloody freezing.

‘Nobody will know, ‘added Jelle. ‘When it’s all done we’ll say I was homesick and my new wife didn’t like Burnley.’

Both Frank and Sean laughed at that one. Even people who lived in Burnley didn’t like Burnley. Visiting fans always sang Burnley’s a sh*t hole I wanna go home, they’d noticed. Joey Barton had once tweeted at least he didn’t have to live in Burnley. Years earlier other footballers had called it Brigadoon.

‘Leave it with us,’ said Frank. ‘We’ll give it serious thought.’

The Belgian opened the door, got out and returned to his car. He gunned the engine. The headlights came on. Within an instant three other cars had switched theirs on too and winked them on and off three times.

For God’s sake let’s go,’ said Sean. ‘This is the pits up here and believe me I know a pit when I see one. I’ve seen Luton. ’   

‘Jesus,’ said Frank, ‘what is it up here, what’s with these people? Let’s get outta here… and by the way, did I tell you?  I had another phone call from a player called Hennings…

You think this is fiction? Vossen came and went so quickly didn’t he. Has such a thing ever happened before at Burnley? The truth is stranger than fiction. You heard that here first.

One minute he’s playing at Bristol City and the next he’s gone to Bruges. It was all over twitter and the Bruges website whilst Burnley remained silent and made no official announcement until late in the day to confirm the deal. Maybe it made sense, although it left us down to the last 9 strikers. Say what you like it’s been a helluva last few days and we hadn’t even got to the last hours of the transfer window and the Jim White Show.

The talk was of Nolan and he was favourite to come to Burnley, another player you hate but would be glad to see in your side. Would Charlie Austin get a big move and would we get more dosh from that? Would Burnley bring in a centre-half or wait to do a loan deal?

A 6-o'clock closing of the window was nothing like as dramatic as midnight. Jim White must have felt cheated. It was so dull I stopped watching at 5. And anyway the club’s media guy tweeted that’s all folks, our work is done. Nevertheless Sky Sports News dragged it out by playing replays until midnight.  Nothing new happened at Burnley save for two contracts being terminated, Luke O’Neill’s and Marvin Sordell. It never worked out for Sordell. If Sean D had taken a punt on him hoping he could find the spark that he clearly once had, it had remained hidden.

Names that had been linked with Burnley went elsewhere. Desperate Derby signed two more midfield players for a combined £10million. And strangest one of the lot, Nathaniel Chalobah was loaned to Naples where the coach said he’d never heard of him. But at home, Dean Marney, Kevin Long and Matt Lowton all played at least half a game for the development side.

Joey B was featured in at least three big newspaper splashes and revealed what we had all been asking. They’d had an omelette at that famous luncheon meeting. Sean had made it. Joey said it was quite edible and admired how he broke the eggs; it was how he broke them that was instrumental in Joey signing.

But, Mrs Sean said, the omelette wasn’t very good… women eh?