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Last Chance - Prologue

“Well, it’s been a long time coming but Nora Brady is well and truly back to her best after almost a year out of the game. And what better time to be back than on the Old Trafford pitch, facing the very player whose tackle almost ended her career. There’s been no love lost between the pair with Rave refusing to apologise for the biting late tackle last season, but we’re hoping it’s all water under the bridge today when Chelsea takes on Manchester United.”

The weather was wet and cold. Rain dribbled down Nora Brady’s neck as she stamped her feet into the grass and covered her boots in a few loose blades. December in the north of England was often unforgiving, but it wasn’t snowing, so that was an upside. To anyone else that day, it might even have been described as miserable, but to Nora Brady, it was heaven.

She raked her fingers through her long dark hair and pulled it all back off her face and out of the biting wind. Tying it tightly at the back of her head gave her an instant face lift. Just like almost everyone else on the pitch, she chuckled to herself.

She was ready for this.

Running out onto the pitch for a warm-up earlier, she’d felt elated to hear the crowd roar and cheer. They’d all come, despite the weather. It was a full house and live on TV.

She imagined her dad and sisters sitting around the lounge, all eyes glued to watch. If it had been the reverse fixture, they’d all be in the stands, but it was a long trek asking them to drop everything in their own lives to travel when they could watch at home. They were loving it even more as Liverpool fans; the old rivalry with United never died.

The theatre of dreams, they called Old Trafford. And she understood why: it was historic. The players that had graced this pitch over the years, the trophies paraded. It was iconic to everyone who was crammed in to watch as the Super League Champions came to town to play their beloved Manchester United.

Nora Brady was Chelsea’s number six, though her position had fluctuated between holding and attacking midfielder. A stalwart of the team for the last decade and a firm fan favourite, she loved pulling on that blue jersey.

The crowd sang songs about her, like they were now, and she could hear them as she held her arms aloft and clapped an acknowledgement towards those who had travelled the long journey up the motorway.

Standing on the edge of the centre circle, Nora let her eyes scan the opposition team. The bright red shirts were instantly recognisable, as was the one face she was unsure how she’d feel about. Krista Rave was Manchester United’s hard as nails defender, and Nora knew all about her.

When Nora Brady was four, she told her dad that when she grew up, she wanted to be a footballer and play for Liverpool. He just smiled and nodded his head and said, “Course ya do, kid.”

But here she was, twenty-eight and living the dream, albeit with Chelsea and not the Reds. She was back from a horrific injury that had seen her sidelined for almost ten months. A sliding tackle, studs up from Rave had been her physical pain, but she’d put everything she had into her rehabilitation.

The tackle had ruptured Nora’s ACL, a career-ending injury for many, and at some points along the healing journey, Nora had been sure it was the end for her too. Nobody talks about the mental health side of being injured.

But surgery and intensive physio had gotten Nora back. She missed the end of the last season, and spent all summer in rehab, missing the start of this season too. But she’d played in the last three games, scored twice and was player of the match against Villa.

Facing Rave again today would be the ultimate psychological challenge.

Everyone was waiting to see what would happen because Rave hadn’t been quiet about it, or apologetic. Online chatter and headlines suggested it would be a tense meeting between the pair, but Brady had shrugged it off. She was back, that was all that mattered. It was all water under the bridge now.

Bad tackles happened; it was part of the game unfortunately, a risk with any sport. People could get injured.

And Rave had been punished. An instant red card, and a three-match ban followed. She hadn’t been happy about it, but an appeal failed, and she lost her place in the team for the rest of the season.

What mattered to Nora now was that she was back, fit, and wanting to enjoy the season and maximise her chance to win back her spot in the Lionesses squad for the next big tournament.

“You ready?” She heard a voice behind her and turned to find club captain Millie Bright grinning at her.

“Yeah, all set.” Nora nodded, stretching out her hamstrings and quads with some last-minute lunges out of habit rather than need.

“Don’t let her get to ya.” Bright jutted her chin and Nora turned to find Rave standing in position just staring across at Brady.

Nora shrugged it off. “Nah, not here to play her mind games.” She watched as Bright ran back onto position and shouted more words of encouragement to the team.

Dropping to her knee along with everyone else on the pitch, the crowd clapped as they made a stand to Kick It Out. Racism had no place in sport.

A moment later and they were up on their feet again, and the ref blew the whistle once more, this time for kick-off.

Brady moved, instantly finding space and watching the game play out around her. The ball was passed from James to Cuthbert, who with a quick flick of the outside of her boot passed it to Brady. Nora looked up. She still had space, and time, so she strode forward, dribbling the ball in front of her. One by one, red shirts moved in, the crowd noise raising with anticipation and urging her to find the pass.

“Brady, over here.” She glanced up and found James free and passed the ball so smoothly that Lauren could just step into it and run with the ball, pelting down the wing, beating one player and then another before crossing superbly. Kerr jumped, the ball glancing off her forehead like a bullet towards the goal…and deflected wide.

The crowd were on their feet. The atmosphere was electric, and Brady felt it tingle through her body as she relished every second of it.

With the corner imminent, Brady took up position in the box, mingling and jostling for space near the penalty spot. She had one thought on her mind: get up, connect, and either score herself, or knock the ball down to a teammate.

Bright pinged the ball in, and just as Brady leapt, she felt the pain of a knee press into her back, and she crumbled to the floor like she’d been shot by an unseen sniper.

Her teammates screamed at the ref for a penalty, but it was waved off, and Brady scrambled to her feet again. She rubbed at the spot and felt the imminent bruise before she started jogging back into position.

“You’re not getting past me today either,” Rave sneered as Nora literally passed her, the ball sailing overhead from the resulting goal kick.

Brady took no notice. She was too old and wise to let an idiot like Krista Rave get under her skin. She’d take any revenge by winning this game.

Nora had just gotten back onside when a fluke rebound from a United player had the ball back at her feet. She turned with it and strode forward. Looking up, there was only Rave ahead of her. The right back was still too far up the pitch, the left back had to get across, Kerr was running alongside her, and it was two on two. Kerr would have to deal with the other defender; all Nora had to do was get the ball to her.

The oh shit look on Rave’s face was priceless, and Nora grinned as she sped up.

Rave had two choices: come out and try to block Brady and hope she wouldn’t be able to pass it to Kerr, or move towards Kerr and leave Brady open to run through. It was a no win situation; the best she could do was hope to shut down Nora’s pass, but there was no way Nora was going to let that happen.

She glanced at Rave, and then Kerr, and with the sweetest touch, she edged the ball past the defender and into the path of Chelsea’s striker. Kerr struck it first time, like a rocket into the roof of the net.

One – nil, Chelsea.

Brady stood still, one arm raised as her team swamped Kerr and celebrated. She turned back and looked at Rave and for a second allowed herself to enjoy the satisfaction.

Rave glared at her, absolute hatred on her face. But Brady just smiled a fuck you at her and walked back to the half-way line. She never saw it coming, just heard the crack sound and felt her leg give way as something hard hit the side of her knee.

Video replay would show Krista Rave launching herself kung-fu style at Nora Brady. The bottom of her boot connected with Nora’s knee, and the centre midfielder crumpled in agony.

It was over.

Another season gone, another tournament with England out of her grasp. The best England player never to go to a tournament.

Nora Brady’s career was over, wasn’t it?

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