It had taken people a long time to realise what was happening until it was already very much happening. Sure, Starling lead by four points at the quarter-mark, but did it matter? People were muttering about how the Premiership wasn't quite at the level of the LigAnaia, a pecking order doubly enforced - first symbolically, when Brinemouth brought Tanya Bottlegreen back to the country as a marquee signing when she'd been liquidated so Zozi could buy Laborious Hawk, then more directly in preseason when one of the most ludicrously stacked qualifiers in history, 1830 vs. Treason, wound up with the Audioslavians routing the Stags 4-0. Another clear talking point was Cranequin City, who had defied expectations to survive for the past five years. Their luck suddenly and spectacularly ran dry, largely because they'd lost their three best players in current-Apoxian and future-Nepharan defender Frostmarris, Farfish playmaker Jevdjevic-Hadsic and future Cormorant Chrysanthe Scafidis, who would be kind of lost among the trees returning from her loan spell to Brinemouth but would later achieve infamy single-handedly keeping Olask Islanders up time after time. They're winless in their first fifteen, and get sunk easily.
People began to realise it was real when the Passerines stood nine points clear by the halfway point of the season, with Crisisbless and Brinemouth having been badly shaken up by what had been, on paper, strong acquisitions. But a miniature wobble followed; losing to the Spiders in the Cup and then, days later, in the league. Crisisbless managed to beat them shortly afterwards in a bad-tempered fixture; their former and Starling's current striker, Birgit Sternberg, had made herself remarkably unpopular in the big city with her exuberant goal celebrations, and cut a subdued figure this time being constantly taunted and having coins hurled her way. Sternberg's form doesn't really recover, her strike partner Braunbier - a veteran from their first season at this level - goes goalless in ten, Rebecca Moody continues to refuse to be fit and Kurtis Warner, the 30-year old winger and captain who has played so far above his natural level... there is a string of six matches topped off with Brinemouth edging them 1-0 where the Dockers have won the lot and Starling have scored just once. Eleven matches after the halfway point, Brinemouth have gone from fourteen points off the pace to ... one. And the Moths are just behind on goal difference. North Laithland, Coret Hawks and Crisisbless and Treason all breathe down their necks.
And yet they cling on. Goodfeather play their spoiling act and pave the way for Starling to take the top of the table, but then they collapse at home to Cranequin Wanderers, and a hard-fought 3-2 win for Brinemouth puts the Dockers back on top on goal difference. The Champions Cup ends for Nephara the way it begun; again, Laborious Hawk's Zozi win 4-0, this time over Brinemouth in the semifinals. It would be poetic if anyone could take their eyes off the league. The final matchday rolls up, and Brinemouth have their traditional quirk of the fixture list come up, yet another unforgiving visit to Chatswood. Emery Lineker pipes up; ”We’re going to destroy them. I’ll tell you straight-up, I don’t want those overpaid, glamourous little children who care more about their hair and their manicures than about good, honest sweat and toil to lift a trophy again, three times in a row - what kind of message does that send to children? Starling are a proper team, and since this has been a sh!t season and we’ve got nothing else to fight for, we may as well fu<k the Dockers up.”
Predictably, Starling are missing Moody through injury, and Warner passes a last-minute fitness test thanks to injections. Brinemouth have a clean bill of health; Chatswood defender Brescia Stubbs vows they will not end it that way. Gallagher plays Sternberg in but her confidence has still not really recovered from Crisisbless II, and she shoots straight at Seward. At the other end, Xidhas forces an impressive save from Justinian Hargrave, then Tipio Runen has a go. Hargrave has been heroic all season. Vermillion's talisman, the overweight, one-footed Catherine Purrington, is doing tricks rather than really focusing on winning what is, for them, a dead rubber. Chatswood get stuck in. Claire Beresford tries to kill 20m man Osman Candelo; Chaplain poleaxes Juquinho. Both find themselves in the book, and to make matters worse, Juquinho finds a beautiful pass from Bosetti and slots it come minutes later. Starling now need to win; Christa Cruz almost puts them behind with a spectacular salmon-like header. Vermillion manager Gerhard MacMillan realises Purrington wants Starling to win the league, and hooks her for Tiberius Eckhart. Eckhart was a great player in his day. Today, he is 35. Gallagher races past him, plays a luscious one-two with Warner and drags a painfully slow shot around Seward with the outside of his right boot, skidding along the ground, and all the cameras capture his expression as he realises it's going to wind up just inside the post...
Woodbine gets sent off for Vermillion minutes later, almost sending Gallagher from the field. He is a Treason loanee, illustrating just how nobody expected Starling to be anywhere near the top seven, but has not at all been playing like a man with divided loyalties. Warner, the hero, slashes in a cross for Braunbier to bundle home; 2-0 Starling. It doesn't matter unless Chatswood score. Corsie with a big switch, Matheson beating Calabrese to it and firing on the turn. Goalkeeper Matt Vintner is about to have sixty seconds that the Dockers will never let him live down. It starts when Matheson's shot takes him by surprise, and he can only scramble it around the post. The next eternity, it feels like, is taken up by Gary Corsie trundling towards the corner flag. The fans serenade him with a hearty cry of "You fat bastard!" The fat bastard hooks in the set piece. Vintner loses his conviction in the sea of bodies, flaps at it. Brescia Stubbs, the murderous centre-half, hammers home a point-blank header in her final match. A one-club woman, 22 caps for Nephara, and all of it comes down to this goal, her celebration of riling up the Brinemouth fans with open taunting, the eight minutes of desperate defending that follow.
It takes time for the helicopter to ferry the trophy from Treason. Everyone thought Brinemouth would have it sewn up. Kurtis Warner lifts it, at last, and the country watches in stunned silence. Leo Hargreaves is voted Player of the Year, Moths teammate Aaliyah Johnson yet again top scorer. For the Team of the Year, Starling's Hargrave is nominated as goalkeeper, Starling fullbacks Hastings and Surman - who had to take over for Moody more often than not - flank Starling's central defence, McNessa and Fowler. Starling right winger Asif complements Starling hatchet-woman Sutton and Starling midfielder Gallagher, for whom the buyout clause of a miserly 3.5 million is, predictably, activated; Starling captain Warner sits on the left flank, with Starling striker Sternberg and Starling striker Braunbier up front. It is a saccharine gesture. And yet, it feels right.
Of course they consolidate next season. From Treason comes Gallagher and the injury-prone Claudia Cautcher, who turns into a McNessa and not a Moody. Mirko Koehler, Lucius Kaspian and Ursa Dimitar - a future journeywoman who arrives as a backup and will only stick around for one season - bolster the side. Crisisbless, for their part, sign 17-year old fullback Leona Rafford for six figures; she made headlines last season for running onto the pitch as a fan to get a selfie with Scheherazade Meier, and her ability for outrunning stewards will later translate into a century of Nephara caps. Treason acquire their third key player from again-relegated Serpentine, reigning U21 player of the year Mariska Woodspur slotting onto the right wing. Mostly, it is a season of consolidation, and relatively understated moves within the league.
The next season is... puzzling. Armstrong's first Premiership game is a 1-0 win in Brinemouth, and the Dockers don't seem to recover, winning just two from their first twelve. By the midway point, they and the Moths are mired in midtable, Vermillion are top. Sabrefell Athletic are a point above the drop zone... but the drop zone is at 28 points from 25 games. The orthodoxy of 50 points being the magic mark to stay up is abruptly swept away; Cranequin Wanderers and Southfell go down on 54, River on 50 itself despite the influence of future Cormorants manager Daniella Strauss promoted to assistant manager. Even the Chequers, in last, have a hemi-respectable 44 points, approaching one per game, and this is mirrored at the top. All is to play for on the last day... except that Starling and Vermillion Rage, somehow the two in the chase, both lose. So do Treason in third, for good measure. The Otters finish third, with the now 37-year old centre-half Hadrian Belfast voted Player of the Year and Nikita Loeher, she of the spectacularly bad timing, top scorer. Crisisbless come just 13th, but beat Extreme Hills 8-0 in the Cup final, a record that will probably stand for the rest of time.
Starling pick themselves up from their defeat - does it matter? They've won the league! Again! Even if it is with a record low points tally of 79, with twelve defeats - because there is no time to rest. But Alianza FC beat them in the CEDC Final, Leonardo Conavacio with the winner in extra time. And they must pick themselves up again, for the Champions Cup final looms. For the first time, a Nepharan side is here. For the first time, too, they win. 3-2, with Claudia Cautcher's second-half brace securing the title against the odds. Two league title and one Champions Cup in a bizarre flurry of two years from midtable. They still wait for company in the trophy room, but the expectations for more have never hung overhead at Starling. Success begets success; that is the motto of a club that has punched consistently above its weight, clawed its way into the top echelon of the league despite all understandable predictions of their downfall. A Cinderella story straight out of a Football Manager playthrough, and here to stay.