by Max Barry

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History of the Premiership 4: Sabrefell Strikes Back

After title five of the modern era, Catheline Stokes hangs up her boots. Along with her accomplishments for the national team, the formative leftback of that early era, she has become a legendary figure for the Stags, the only club she has ever played for. But this is also, in part, because she was never considered by the big-hitters abroad, and the tragic reality is that she has seen her hometown club outgrow her. She retires at 34. She has the legs to go on a couple of years, but her contract at Treason is up; she is far enough behind Esther Cardiff in the depth chart to have entered a different postcode.

The effect has not been confined to her. Darek Norgen is one of the casualties at Brinemouth, with Aries Chariots picking him up for a pricey six million. Larissa Garrotte, the manager of the treble, has lost the dressing room, failed to reinvent the side and been shown the door, with Stephen Frew arriving from Dwile Warriors, arguably the world's premier club side. The duopoly now have the Baptism of Fire managers of Nephara and Apox. He brings the enigmatic young Juquinho with him, a tricky technician who will win the Iron Fist in his first season. Damian Arragne, once the league's most expensive signing, is just another striker now and not even a particularly good one; he will hit 14 from 38 appearances as the Spiders hover in midtable.

The expectation is that Treason and Brinemouth will rise to the top once again, perhaps with Crisisbless playing spoiler. The Heelers, by this point, are desperate enough for short-term results that they end up spending seven million to bring 33-year old veteran Sur Arora to the club. The Stags get off to a flying start, not only dominant in the league but achieving the two greatest results in the league's history; 4-0 over Northbrook Diamonds, and 4-0 over Northbrook Diamonds. If Dwile aren't the best club in the world, it might be Northbrook, and yet the Stags play like titans at home and daemons away. Ultimately, no side will quite reach the quarterfinals, but they've done enough. Next season, the top three will become Champions Cup qualifiers for the first time.

The league season is quietly bizarre. Chatswood are the early front-runners, unbeaten in their first 13 games, while obscure Cranequin City striker Bruce Shea is the early leading scorer. He manages ten from his first fourteen and will coast on that glory for the rest of his largely terrible seasons in the Premiership. The Rooks will fail to make the most of last season's reprieve, while the Moths will mark their ninth season without qualifying for UICA... while also winning the Cup, edging out a relegated Chenoworth Rovers side that score just thirty goals all season and only go down on goal difference. Owing to just three draws, Goodfeather come sixth despite losing the same number of games as 18th-placed Stahlburg Rovers, who started the season with Catheline Harper as their captain and ended it with her as their manager, the outspoken winger taking command shortly after a season- and thus career-ending ACL injury and guiding them to safety.

Despite all preseason predictions, Sabrefell Athletic become champions to break the six-year duopoly. It is the vindication of Miriam Aragon, who oversaw the club's infamous 17th-placed finish but survived it to rebuild. Athletic are a sly, ruthless and oddly diminutive side of journeymen, with Rowan Gawain and Ole Oehman pulling the strings, evergreen holding midfielder Yupanqui Sarracena keeping it together and the thorny, bristling striker Coalan Bray up front. Underlining their intent, Athletic go on a record spending spree in the final hour of the deadline, opportunistically signing up a world-class defender in Brix Hamilton - who will later deny all knowledge and evidence of her arrival here - and a 33-year old playmaker. One of the best ones in the world. Armando Quillisi. It is a desperate gamble. Across town, the luckless Moths lose centre-forward Kellard, fail to re-sign Rook Cathar to replace him, miss out on Gaizka Urrunaga and Harald Matheson and finally land 26-year old Curio. It bankrupts them, but will prove a blessing in disguise.

The other side catching the attention are Starling, promoted to the Premiership for the first time in their history. It seems as though they are almost fated to be here. The Passerines smash ninety goals past the First Division and nearly crest a century of points, to which a 31-year old manager, Amethyst Fegelein - still by far the youngest in Premiership history, here after three ACL injuries cruelled her career as a winger - has added a 35-year old Cormorants international Karl Finnan and journeyman striker, Maxine Lynwood, the epitome of a lower-midtable striker in this era. A documentary, Rise Like A Phoenix, is commissioned to chart their first journey in the Premiership. And so, without fanfare, they come 23rd. Only Vermillion Wanderers are bottom, having made in Anderson Sandro the worst signing in Premiership history. He arrives at his press showing two hours late, somehow gets just two touches in his first match off the bench, and scores just two goals all season - their first and last. After the latter, the home fans greet his goal celebration by hurling coins, bottles and chips at him from close range. Raven River equalise a minute later through future Cormorants manager Daniella Strauss; they will go on to win 4-1.

The top clubs set a vicious pace, Vermillion the early leaders only to burn out down the track, Brinemouth top of the league on 50 points by the halfway mark but overhauled towards the end by Reinhard Shale's Crisisbless, who become the second side to crest the hundred-points mark. Having already won the title with the Stags, Shale becomes the first manager to win the title with two different clubs. Treason are dreadful, finishing just 9th; Ramsey is 'allowed to look for other opportunities' at the close of the season, with his protege, Escher Speare, becoming the Manager of the Year for her work with North Laithland. He still has one trick left in him, though; he will rehabilitate the sleeping giant of Cosumar.

The Moths stun everyone by rising to third to seize the final CC place, with Curio taking the league by storm. Sabrefell Athletic are scarcely in the league fight at all. They drift to sixth, but their focus is elsewhere, and vindicated. First, they win the CEDC on penalties, against a brutal, cynical Northern Union side that is their opposite in so many ways. Exhausted, they drag themselves to the Globe Cup final, facing the giants Raynor City United. It's cagey. It is a brutal, difficult affair, and Athletic put all their grit and needle into surviving until, in the 117th minute, Bree Montreal drags Corbijn out of position before finding Laxenburg down the left, the leftback skims a low cross down the face of goal, Coalan Bray can't quite get to it... but the slightest of curves is enough to curl it into the path of Merry Reiter. One touch to trap it. One to drive it past Celelothina. For the first time, a Nepharan side can lift UICA silverware.

The theme before next season appears to be a consolidation at the top, with Brinemouth and the Sabrefell sides all focusing on transfers within the league. Treason have an odd window, yet again buying South Laithland's best player - Allbeck, Flaccus, Connact, Ashdown and Schwarzer make five, the last three wingers - losing Tanith Rainsford and allowing Southfell to reunite Elior Schneider and Lily Schindler, their slightly subpar strike partnership from years gone by linking up again. Schwarzer comes in to replace Olenna Carrick, sold to Brinemouth; Carrick will repay them by scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win early in the season. Stahlburg City lose Elsa Layland to Sabrefell Athletic and Durgan Pryor to Sabrefell Moths. With the retirement of dour 38-year old Didier Bernard, they have lost their final link to the glory days, and are truly by this point a midtable club. While Anders Engstroem catches the headlines, the Mallox striker succeeding OAS Royal rival Arora at Crisisbless, the most significant signing is Dr Rnj to Aries Chariots. The Farfish - no, really - 'defender' will become the league's premier attacking fullback in the years to come.

Crisisbless United have already got a reputation for overachieving, but a quarter of the way into the sasonseason they sit at the top. North Laithland lead at halfway. But it seems inevitable that a truly big side overtakes them, and one does; Sabrefell Moths burst through the centre, ultimately winning in decisive fashion with time to spare. Jesper Lee Coleman, at first considered an underachiever, has the season of his life to drag the Moths over the line. Despite a disappointing start where all four clubs in the UICA group stages come third, Crisisbless almost defend Nephara's honour in the Globe Cup, undone only by Oceanside on penalties, while Southfell's attempt to bring the band back together ends in relegation.

By the end of the season, Sabrefell sides sit first, second and seventh. The odd one out, River, win the Cup after a 5-4 shootout over South Laithland. Without a doubt, the then-capital had managed to re-establish themselves at the top, while it was finally Treason's turn to experience a mediocre spell out of the spotlight. The top six took another step towards truly establishing itself... and then another, as Amethyst Fegelein's Starling get promoted and this time are determined to make it stick. The Premiership has its first UICA silverware and, thanks to Crisisbless' heroics, four CC places at last. They had arrived and they would never look back.

The Grand Union of Nephara