by Max Barry

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History of the Premiership 5: Starling

The current 'big six' of the Premiership contain five of the traditional powers of the league. Sabrefell Moths and Athletic, the two primary powers of the former capital and largest city, representing broadly its west and east respectively. Crisisbless and Treason, the primary clubs of the second- and third-largest cities. Brinemouth, easily the largest club of its relatively small city, but still Nephara's main eastern port and centre of affluence. And Starling, the sole club of a town of six hundred thousand somewhere between Crisisbless and the Vale, with no history of success or even, particularly, relevance. They are the clear odd one out. This is the story of how they got there.

After their first relegation, the Passerines made it straight back at their first attempt. This time, they'd won the league; but they'd done it with fewer goals, more goals conceded and eleven fewer points than they'd managed to come second with. Manager Amethyst Fegelein had been under scrutiny following the first relegation, and failure to promote would probably have meant her head. They made a handful of purchases, largely of damaged goods. Justinian Hargrave was a young goalkeeper, clearly talented but error-prone, Geneva Rafferty was an accomplished winger but in her early 30s, Emery Hastings was at the start of what would become a journeywoman career and Deirdre McNessa, a 22-year old free agent defender from Cosumar, was seen as essentially made of glass and waiting for the end. These would all become names to remember.

Nobody cared about any of this, because this was perhaps the most high-profile window in the league's history to date. Brinemouth signed three strikers and repatriated another. Old veterans Mahoney, Breton, Mathias and Stewart made their way, with premier defensive midfielder Jonathan Bosetti, legendary striker RJ Styrn and electric playmaker Rutger Locke headlining the arrivals, though those with an ear to the ground paid particular attention to the return of Penumbra Amokachi from a loan in Farfadillis. Styrn and Amokachi were peas in a pod, though at opposite ends of their career; the former proved a huge influence on the latter, and they and Juquinho combined to form a fluid front three of versatile, technical strikers. Making way, Olenna Carrick, strangely, moved from Brinemouth to the Moths to complete moves between three top sides in three years. The Moths also acquired Osarian striker Aaliyah Johnson - remember the name - while the headlines were all about Adnan Zozula, a renowned world-class striker in his prime at 29, snapped up by Treason and at 25m the record signing of the league's history.

The season quickly took shape with the new-look Brinemouth racing to an early lead, undefeated in their first seventeen games despite a string of injuries. They lose once to Stahlburg City. And then win their next fourteen. Off the pitch, the story is dominated by the open secret of Gary Corsie's affair with Chloe Rudden, and precisely what the spring-heeled Spiders winger could ever see in the tubby, weirdy, beardy Chatswood freak, who would later use the earnings from his football career to buy a shack in Kensey. The league itself is fairly predictable; Brinemouth set a new record with 109 points, with Rutger Locke clinching the Player of the Year honours upon his return, Amokachi the U21 award, Bosetti the winning Debutant. Aaliyah Johnson won the Iron Boot for the first of many, many times as she fired the Moths to best of the rest. Chatswood outperform Treason with Cranequin Wanderers, somehow, taking sixth place under the uncompromising Catheline Allister, while Cranequin City once again defy all preseason predictions to finish 14th. Sabrefell Athletic finish outside UICA entirely. Aries Chariots arguably have the best year of all; fourth in the league off the goals of Nate Walker and Kurtis Quinn, narrowly defeated by an Eoin Killanen-inspired Kingsgrove in the CEDC final but picking themselves up to beat Directus 1-0 and win the Globe Cup, a competition the Chariots were beginning to make their own.

Things are relatively understated next window, a state of affairs that would, one would imagine, suit those at the top. Treason were probably those most affected; they handed Rutger Connacht back to South Laithland now that they were good and done with him, bought winger Lienke Vesper from AFC Serpentine to go with their purchase of leftback Scylla Vyntra from them the season prior - this left-flank partnership would soon win the World Cup for Nephara - and, sadly, watched as Roque Acosta hung up the boots. They also sold injury-prone defender Rebecca Moody to Starling - perhaps Moody had seen the way that Deirdre McNessa had been fixed by the Passerines' magic sponges. They would be unable to work the same magic for her, but with the last Nepharan signing of the window, Eastfield winger Ali Asif was parachuted in. Another piece of the puzzle.

The next season is something of a throwback, if again lacking in something of drama. Brinemouth again took the top, remaining unbeaten by the halfway mark and already scoring 65 goals. By the end, despite letting a few defeats on - on paper, this was not quite the equal of last season - it was a hundred and twenty-nine. And that was just in the league; they performed strongly in UICA and went on to win the Cup as well, triumphing 10-0 on aggregate over Vermillion in the semis before beating down the Moths in the final. Penumbra Amokachi was no longer U21 player of the year; now she was top of the lot, and top scorer on top of that with 31 goals at the spearhead, having apparently absorbed RJ Styrn's powers. Gerhard Thunder, managing Brookford Otters, was Manager of the Year; his side pipped Athletic to seventh, in which he took great pleasure indeed.

At the bottom, a decaying, declining Parrhesia United are for the first time sent packing into the second tier, Mirko Vangelis having a truly remarkably useless season on the left wing to replace a man they sold to Brinemouth, Christian Beckcamp. The only positive for the Saints was that this season saw first appearances for goalkeeper Jakob Carter - who would also be bought by Brinemouth eventually - and the triad of Berisha, Avery and Rademacher who would later become the local nucleus of the side. Sheridan also tasted relegation at the first attempt, having scored pitifully few goals. Cranequin City, stubbornly, survived again.

Starling came 13th. Five places better than last year, one place below the top half, one loss more than win, one goal conceded more than scored. Few thought this would be their position to strike, especially after Brookford Otters - flying high under Gerhard Thunder in seventh place - snapped up their star striker, Nikita Loeher. Loeher was needed to replace the 26 goals of the famously one-footed powerhouse Igrene Cantor, yet another World champion who moved to Treason. Every goal Cantor scored seemed to be a pure power screamer with her left, and it never stopped working. Still, the Otters are on their way up, and the Passerines are doing well just to tread water in midtable.

To this day, Nikita Loeher regards the move as the biggest mistake of her career.

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