Imagine the sight of a group of red-faced, sweating, middle-aged white men making their way to what looks like a dilapidated barn on a small, abandoned farm, somewhere in the middle of the countryside in the south of England.
They each arrive separately, shepherded to the location in expensive cars by hired drivers who will only return to collect the passengers once their shady assignment has been completed. Collectively, these men represent the newspapers of Great Britain, and this is not the first time they have congregated in secret like this.
Their meetings usually occur in the weeks leading up to the appearance of the England football team in a major football tournament, but they are never pre-planned – the call to gather can come at any time, day or night, depending on the immediacy of the circumstances.
This time, their bank holiday weekend has been interrupted and the group have been forced to convene at short notice. The reason? Allow one of the men, who we’ll call Mr. S, to explain.
‘This one’s a beaut. It’s the Sterling boy again. He’s put a picture of himself up on that there Instagram. Got himself a new tattoo – AND HE’S ONLY GONE AND GOT A MACHINE GUN DRAWN ON HIS F***ING LEG!’
The rest of the men moan in semi-orgasmic approval at this news. One of them speaks up. We’ll call him Mr. E for no particular reason.
‘F*** me, that’s a stone cold winner. This is the one we’ve been waiting for this time around. And the timing couldn’t be more perfect – just two weeks before the start of the tournament! If this doesn’t throw a spanner right up their preparations, nothing will!’
Another man, Mr. G, offers a word of caution, saying, ‘Yes, but Raheem has subsequently explained the meaning behind the tattoo. It’s related to his father being shot to death when Raheem was only two years of age. And the gun on his leg is pointing at the foot he shoots with. It’s clearly a deeply personal tribute connected to a traumatic event in his formative years…’
One of the other men, Mr. M, apoplectically spits out one of the hundreds of cream doughnuts that have been provided by the organisers of the gathering.
‘Bollocks to that!’ he roars. ‘You think we’re going to let a trivial little detail like that get in the way of a red hot story like this? Especially after all the groundwork we’ve put in on Sterling.
Mr. E takes over. ‘Exactly. Remember the time when we did him for buying his mum an expensive sink? Or the time we did him for getting a cheap flight back from his holiday? I’ll bet he didn’t know if he was coming or going!’
Mr. M has more to say. ‘Reminds me of the time we did him for shopping at Primark and Greggs while driving round in a fifty grand Merc…?’
‘A Merc that he didn’t even have the decency to keep clean!’ howls Mr. E, adding, ‘And what about that time we added up the price of all his cars? It came to over a million quid! Unbelievable!’
[Thread] a selection of times when our national press have chosen to run stories on Raheem Sterling.
1. The one where Raheem was 'tired'. pic.twitter.com/6K3cHu6r7T
— Adam Keyworth (@adamkeyworth) May 28, 2018
‘Surely all a bit pointless though,’ interjects Mr. G.
‘Shut up you hippy tart!’ shouts Mr. S, who is keen to take ownership of this revelatory story. ‘Finders keepers, as usual?’ he asks the room, to resigned mumbles of affirmation.
The men empty their mouths of cream doughnuts and hoist their goblets filled with pig blood as they raise a toast:
‘To the derailment of England’s World Cup hopes, always and forever!’
They drink the blood and quietly remember some of their more memorable efforts from the past – revealing Bobby Robson’s extra-marital affair ahead of the 1990 World Cup, castigating the England players for their ‘dentist’s chair’ night out in 1996, Glenn Hoddle’s faith-healing preferences in 1998, and so on and so on.
Then there was tales of Sven Goran Eriksson’s love life, with information gleaned from hacked mobile phones and in 2010, John Terry’s alleged affair with Wayne Bridge’s ex which led to Terry’s resignation as captain ahead of the start of that year’s World Cup. Not to mention their bold attempt to scupper England’s most recent qualifying campaign right at the start, by stitching up Sam Allardyce before he’d had a chance to get used to the job.
Their latest warped mission now complete, they leave the ramshackle barn and return to their offices, where they will prepare in advance for their blanket negative coverage once England invariably fail to get past the quarter finals.
It’s a ritual almost as old and as renowned as the World Cup itself.