With apologies to Herman Melville.
I am a football manager. The nature of my work has brought me into contact with an interesting and somewhat singular set of men – I mean defenders. I have known very many of them, but Bartleby O’Brien was the strangest I ever saw or heard of.
Now, there was great work for defenders. Not only must I push the defenders already with me, but I must have additional help. In answer to my advertisement, a motionless young man one morning, stood upon my office threshold. It was Bartleby O’Brien.
At first O’Brien did an extraordinary quantity of defending. As if long famishing for a chance to defend, he seemed to gorge himself on our games. I was quite delighted with his application to our task.
One afternoon I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do – namely, to mark Charlie Austin against Burnley. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when O’Brien in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”
I sat awhile in perfect silence. Immediately it occurred to me that my ears had deceived me, or O’Brien had entirely misunderstood. I repeated my request in the clearest tone I could assume. But in quite as clear a one came the previous reply, “I would prefer not to.”
“Prefer not to,” echoed I, rising in high excitement, and crossing the training pitch with a stride. “What do you mean? Are you moon-struck?”
“I would prefer not to,” said he.
Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance. Even so, I regarded O’Brien and his ways. Poor fellow! thought I, he means no mischief.
“O’Brien,” said I, in a still gentler tone, “come here; I am not going to ask you to do any thing you would prefer not to do – I simply wish to speak to you.”
“I would prefer not to.”
“Why, how now? what next?” exclaimed I, “do no more defending?” “No more.” “And what is the reason?”
“I have given up defending,” he answered, and slid aside.
After some days I approached him, and said, “The time has come; you must quit this place; I am sorry for you; here is money; but you must go.”
“I would prefer not to,” he replied.
Then something severe, something unusual must be done. Next day I thus addressed him: “I find these pitches too far from Elland Road; I propose to relocate, and shall no longer require your services.” He made no reply, and nothing more was said.
Established in the new facility, I thought all was going well, when a perturbed looking stranger visited me, inquiring whether I had recently occupied Thorp Arch.
“Then sir,” said the stranger, “you are responsible for the man you left there. He refuses to do any defending; he refuses to do any thing; he says he prefers not to; and he refuses to quit the premises.”
“I am very sorry, sir,” said I, with assumed tranquility, but an inward tremor, “but, really, the man you allude to is nothing to me – he is no relation or apprentice of mine, that you should hold me responsible for him.”
I heard later that the stranger had sent to the police, and had O’Brien removed to Armley Gaol as a vagrant.
Imagination will supply the meager recital of poor O’Brien’s interment. But if the reader remains curious as to who O’Brien was, I can only reply that one little item of rumour came to my ear a few months later: that O’Brien had once been a defender at Bradford City. When I think over this rumour, I cannot adequately express the emotions which seize me. Bradford City!
Ah O’Brien! Ah humanity!
From The Square Ball magazine 2011/12 issue five.