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Apparently it has been 500 years since Michelangelo started work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (seriously, I looked it up) and despite the best efforts of a certain Offley player to redecorate the Vatican (I name no names) it remains a work in progress. It’s rather appropriate really, because after a decade of toil Offley & Stopsley Cricket Club is still evolving and searching for its true identity as it heads into its eleventh season.

The recent off season has seen work carried out on and off the pitch. The pavilion has undergone a facelift following extensive renovation of the veranda, as well as a determined effort to prop up a roof that was starting to show more signs of sagging than a pensioner’s tits. A new sightscreen glistens in the sun – or sparkles in the rain – and the smell of freshly cut grass lingers on the breeze.

On the field the club appears to be on the up following a successful recruitment drive. The new recruits should reinforce a line-up where several key players will be determined to carry on their successful rearguard action against the advance of time. Once again, I name no names.

Despite the loss of 10 games to the elements, last season was a successful one for the club. 2007 saw the club lift the Herts Village Trophy for the first time, storming back from a hopeless position to defeat Bengeo, and record an unbeaten season in the Saracens League, albeit a performance that was not quite enough to secure a second consecutive title. However, it was enough to ensure promotion – and secure another nice shiny nylon pennant – and there is no reason to think that Offley cannot compete successfully at the rarefied heights of Division Nine as they bid to make it three consecutive promotions.

On Sundays the team will once again lock horns with familiar foes in Division One of the North Herts League, while a full slate of friendly fixtures for the fledgling second team will provide plenty of opportunities for those unlucky enough to miss out on selection against the likes of Houghton Town and Parkin Cricket Club.

Following a strenuous campaign of practice in the nets and, in some cases, on the football pitch or the fives court (Fives is apparently a game that rewards dynamic, decisive play so anyone who has seen Chris Austin bat will be surprised to learn he is rather good – allegedly: after all we’ve only got his word for it), a leaner, meaner Offley side is ready to take the pitch for the first game of the season against Lilley, a game where revenge and score settling could be high on the agenda after last year’s season-ending debacle. That’s the theory at any rate, although with weddings, stag weekends and another year of evil living set to take their toll, can Offley’s finest defy the advance of time and push the sun back into the sky for one more day of summer?

Scott Addy (2007: 33 Runs @ 11.00. 3 Wickets @ 11.33.) returned after a lengthy exile and proved that he can still hit a straight six and miss a straight ball with equal style. He still has the ability and desire to experiment with the ball and age doesn’t seem to have done a lot to weaken his arm. All in all some things don’t change but if the ball bounces his way, he could have a big year.

James Ashby (2007: 7 Runs @ 3.50. 5 Wickets @ 10.80.) will be counted on to put in a couple of emergency appearances in the Saracens League. The Lilley refugee played twice last season, including the dramatic victory at Chorleywood where he was nearly out three times before departing for a single. Ashby adds a serrated edge to the attack whenever he plays and has a nasty stare that can freeze the blood in batsmen.

Chris Austin (2007: 163 Runs @ 14.82. 21 Catches, 12 Stumpings.) is coming off an excellent year behind the stumps. The man known as Kestrel on account of his habit for flapping about behind the stumps (not after the dubiously weak lager of the same name because he generally contributes about two percent of the team’s runs to the total) set a club record for stumpings and held on to most of the catches that came his way. He also secured victory in his only game as captain at Lowestoft, inspiring his teammates with a dazzling 13 from 91 balls, a defiant back-to-the-wall effort that made a mockery of a swift outfield and an easy-paced pitch.

However, he is determined to make a big impression with the bat this season. Anyone who saw Austin purchase his new blade could not have failed to be impressed with the consideration he put in to selecting the right weapon. A cynical minority might have looked on with shock and awe and wondered just how he manages to score so many runs. But who cares what I think? It was a lengthy process, albeit one that should bring its reward early in the season when he forces a half volley through silly point and gets it off the square.

Steve Baron (2007: 2 Wickets @ 10.00) had few opportunities in the first team last year but he made his mark at the lower level. Baron joined a select group of individuals when he recorded the first hat trick of his career for the second team with a pulsating performance with the ball. Indeed far better than we should remember that heroic effort rather than his display in the season finale where he injured his groin before going out to bat, fielded in black shoes and sunglasses on an overcast day and dropped a sitter. In a related effort he also learned that it is not wise to try and field a ferociously struck pull shot with your ankle.

Steve Bexfield (2007: 944 Runs @ 47.20.) They said he was too old. They said his eyes were gone. They said he would never display such panache with his pads again. But Bexfield proved them wrong last year as he shattered the myth that he had fallen foul of cataracts to score more runs than anyone else for the club as he racked up the runs and leg byes with aplomb. Anyone who saw the soppy grin on his face when he lifted the Herts Village Trophy aloft in the early evening light will know how much the club means to him. He may not have the same demented will to win that he possessed in his youth – to be fair even Hitler mellowed slightly once he’d got a toehold in Poland – but he refuses to go quietly into the night.

Actually that might not be quite true. Despite his competitive urges, Bexfield intends to take something of a back seat this year and will lead the Second XI in their early encounters while they find their feet. This has nothing to do with the fact he feels that last year may have been his last hurrah maybe he just wants to gracefully step down a level while his eyes are still up to the task. Then again, he was particularly keen to buy that shiny white sightscreen...

His biggest ambition in 2008 is to average his age with the bat.

Dave Bridgland (2007: 404 Runs @ 26.93. 11 Wickets @ 34.00) Our main man for a crisis (as witnessed against Houghton Town on 2006 and many other occasions) may have scaled the heights but he’s shown no sign of careering downhill as he stands on the cusp of achieving the double of 4,000 runs and 150 wickets for Offley (he is currently on 3898 and 139 respectively). His versatility with the bat means he can contribute anywhere in the top seven and is always willing to die for the cause, regardless of whether it’s flailing away at the death or taking on the quicks at the start of the innings. His unique blend of spin bowling continues to net him wickets while no one who was present will quickly forget his stunning catch at Norwich where he hurtled round the boundary like a runaway milk float before hauling in what seemed a certain six a split second before it crossed the boundary.

Nathan Brodie (2007: 686 Runs @ 18.54) faces an intriguing season as he seeks to make the transition from Bloodaxe to Young Brearley. Despite one or two flaws in his defensive technique – he batted 38 times and was bowled on 20 occasions – Brodie continues to play his shots and to the devil with the yorker. Only Bexfield and Mo Chaudry scored more runs for the club last season and that elusive first century draws ever closer. Whether that means his first century with the bat or the first man in club history to be stumped a hundred times remains to be seen.

However, following Bexfield’s decision to concentrate on the second team in the early part of the season, Brodie could find himself thrust into the front line in his role as vice captain as early as the first game of the season. There’s no disputing the fact that Brodie is the club’s best fielder but will the decision to hand him the captaincy at the AGM produce a series of Paul Collingwood-like performances or will his short fuse and willingness to share his opinions with umpires and hurl the ball at teammates lead to the Offley version of Three Mile Island? One thing’s for sure – it certainly won’t be dull. Nor was Chernobyl.....

Darrell Cooper (2007: 4 Wickets @ 21.25) returned from a lengthy sabbatical in 2007 to show that he can still run in and bowl uphill against the wind with the best of them. His ill-advised experiment with spin has been abandoned in favour of a return to seam and swing. He was so enthused with his performances at the end of last year that he has bought a new pair of bowling boots, a purchase that could either spell doom for batsmen in the coming months or herald a revival of the recently-neglected Offley pie industry.

The former holder of the single-season wicket record may not be in any danger of reclaiming the title in a hurry but he proved against Norwich that he can still cause problems for the best batsmen. Cooper enjoyed a strong tour to Yarmouth and was also the leading light of the second team where he maintained his one hundred percent record as a captain by losing his ninth game out of nine in charge. All one can say on that matter is that there are bad captains, unlucky captains and hopeless captains and then there is Darrell Cooper. Many would rather take their chances on making it to the South Pole with Captain Scott than trying to win a game of cricket with Captain Cooper. He should be the mainstay of the second team attack in 2008 and can always be relied upon to apply the famous front foot lunge to any delivery and give his best in the field – even if it’s not liable to be much of a best at this time of day.

Jon Cerasale (2007: 188 Runs @ 23.50. 28 Wickets @ 10.04.) enjoyed one of his best seasons in recent times last year as he proved that he can still cause problems for batsmen despite the fact he’s no longer as young as he once was. Then again, who is? Despite a plethora of injuries that have heard him referred to in certain circles as the Poor Man’s Matty Freeman, Cerasale managed to stay mainly injury-free in 2007 and enjoyed resounding success in the Saracens League where his pace and accuracy proved too much for a succession of pensioners and youngsters to handle. Two more wickets would have seen him deservedly win the league bowling averages ahead of Ickleford’s resident DJ.

Despite starting the season with two ducks (Offley scored more than 570 runs in those two matches) he produced a magnificent innings to set up victory over Houghton Town – an innings that was inspired by the offer of free batting tips from Wayne Cutts, a radical motivational technique. He continues to hit the ball as hard as anyone at the club regularly booming drives down the ground and smearing the ball through the covers. His ambition for the 2008 campaign is to play a scoring shot on the legside. Armed with two new pieces of willow, Cerasale is determined to prove once more that he really is the Big Kahuna.

Gary Chamberlain (2007: 12 Runs @ 2.40. 3 Wickets @ 45.33.) represents one of the new breed of Offley cricketers graduating from the Colts - a product of the Keeley Academy. He bowled well with little luck during his first games for the club, generating plenty of bounce and dropped catches. He also showed some ability with the bat – providing that he wasn’t expected to hit sixes after being left in the lurch by his senior partner.

Mo Chaudry (2007: 709 Runs @ 32.23. 22 Wickets @ 8.91.) enjoyed an outstanding season in 2007 and turned in some impressive performances with bat and ball. He won the club bowling award (despite the obligutory comedy first ball beamer), topped the Division Ten batting averages and topped it all with an outstanding all-round performance in the final of the Village Trophy. He didn’t actually go as far as making the trophies and engraving them himself but he pretty much did everything else – and would doubtless have been prepared to have a crack at making the trophies if he’d been asked.

His bowling was a revelation as he shredded opposing batting line-ups with fast, full-pitched deliveries that proved too hot to handle. Fortunately he retained his innocence and memories of a less cynical age, by lobbing in the occasional moon ball that posed more of a threat to low-flying aircraft than the batsmen. Unfortunately for most of the batsmen in question, he invariably followed up the moon ball with a yorker to rip the off stump out of the ground. Despite his big season last time out he needs to take the next step in 2008 and ensure that his North Herts League average (about 10) is closer to his Saracens League average (about 50). Regardless of success with bat and ball, Chaudry can be relied upon to display his customary demented enthusiasm in the field.

Wayne Cutts (2007: 16 Runs @ 2.67. 4 Wickets @ 13.00) faces a huge year in 2008 as he prepares to tie the knot with his beloved and settle down for a life of wedded bliss and nights in front of the computer bidding for items on eBay. He also faces the daunting task of trying to lift his career average above 3.00. If an average of 40.00 is the accepted benchmark of a great test batsman, then an average of 5.00 is the hallmark of a village spud. For anyone who can’t even get his average up to 3.00, well, that’s something else altogether, something that cries out for special needs status. Can I get an Amen, brother?

Cutts flirted with retirement during the winter – perhaps better for all concerned if he had indeed opted to pack away his cricket bat in favour of pursuing a new career as an ice skater – before deciding to return for another campaign. He defied the laws of probability by successfully lowering his average last year and his career mark of 2.93 stands as a sad testimony to an abject lack of talent and ability. In all honesty he was little short of abysmal with the bat last season, routinely falling LBW to his infamous patented paddle sweep and incurring the wrath of Umpire Bigmore as a result of trying to work balls pitched on middle and off stump through fine leg for a single. He can be guaranteed to try his best in the field and can also extract prodigious turn – when he manages to land the ball on the right strip. Hopefully there will be no repeat of his disgraceful behaviour on tour where he bought the game into disrepute at Norwich by being run over by a large man and subsequently being run out after one of the most inept pieces of running in history. Cricket’s soul died that day.

Gary Davison (2007: 180 Runs @ 45.00) would have had a lengthy write-up here but something came up at the last moment so I couldn’t write it. I’m sure it was a good excuse although I can’t actually remember what it was.

Jeff Francis (2007: 43 Runs @ 8.60.) has finished his studies at university and will be hoping to make a bigger impact in the coming months. He may have slightly regretted his grandiose claim that he only liked to play in important games before his first match of the season – a match that ended with a duck – but there’s no doubt he has the ability to score runs and is particularly strong off his pads. It remains to be seen how quickly he can shift in the outfield following his final year surviving on takeaways.

Matty Freeman (2007: 150 Runs @ 16.67. 20 Wickets @ 29.20.) has plenty of points to prove in 2008. To be honest, he has so many points to prove it’s likely to take him until around 2013 to work his way down the list so we could be in for a bit of a wait.

As ever it’s not easy to know where to start when assessing Freeman’s gifts although you know you’re in some difficulty when you can’t help but wonder whether or not his fielding was his biggest asset last year. Some players march out to bat with a swagger, ready to look the bowlers in the eye and determined not to die wondering. However, last year’s tally of 13 not outs from 22 innings suggests that Freeman’s priority is survival at all costs and any singles that may accrue can be regarded as a fringe benefit.

His running between the wickets was reminiscent of Inzamam-ul-Haq in a trance last year, as he routinely turned twos into ones and left his partners high and dry, including his epic display against Codicote where he claimed two scalps in two balls. He has the ability to hit the ball with tremendous power but often seems eager to pat the ball back down the wicket, ostensibly unwilling to damage the bowler’s figures or to run the risk of suffering injury by jogging through for a single.

His bowling was, to be brutal, shite as he came trundling in like Steve Harmison on callipers. A tendency to experiment with half-trackers and leg stump half volleys resulted in a barrage of boundaries and some fairly short spells. The highlight of the season was arguably provided when he played for the opposition and fed Bexfield a succession of rank long hops that were dispatched to all parts. It was painful – painfully funny, actually – to watch as Bexfield hammered his surrogate son to all corners of the ground.

Freeman’s encyclopaedia of excuses encompasses injuries, run up issues, pollen counts, wind chill factors, footwear issues, prejudiced umpires, lack of fielding support and a pathological fear of taking five wickets and having to buy a jug. He’s the only bowler in the history of the game to decline to bend his back on the grounds that he might suffer a stress fracture. Despite his shortcomings he retains the ability to bowl with genuine venom and has comfortably the best stare in the club – a stare that is customarily reserved for pensioners and small children. A genuinly flawed talent waiting for a kick in the ass to kick start a fine career.

Phil Gourd (2007: N/A.) returns after a brief retirement in 2007. He is determined to prove that there’s plenty left in the tank – admittedly most of what’s left is about 96 percent proof – and his ability to serve up pies off a two-step run up could prove crucial in helping the second team get through their overs in quick time, although there is a danger that precious minutes will routinely be sacrificed in the search for the ball in the nearby fields.

Steve Hoar (2007: 556 Runs @ 69.50.) had both the Saracens and Offley averages locked up last year before breaking his wrist playing football. Cynics would argue that judging by the chance he fluffed at Ickleford early in the season he had not only broken his wrist but had had both hands amputated (he blamed a rogue contact lens). After injury curtailed his appearances last season, the prospect of marriage seems certain to restrict his availability this season. For someone who has struggled to deal with the short ball at times, Hoar has shown surprising enthusiasm for getting to grip with his fiancée’s bouncers and will probably only figure in the initial stages of the campaign.

When he is available, Hoar will doubtless continue to rack up the runs. As befitting someone who played alongside a young Monty Panesar at Luton Town, Hoar brings a certain steely-edged professionalism to the crease where his career as an accountant is simulated by his eager acquisition of runs. Sadly some of his efforts in the field are not overly impressive and there is a certain Monty-ish air to his efforts – part Python part Panesar – and anyone wishing to obtain a balanced view of his fielding skills and catching prowess should consult with Mr Mark Tattersall.

Colin Keeley (2007: 167 Runs @ 13.92. 26 Wickets @ 20.38.) had his best season for a long time in 2007and has taken more wickets for the club than any other player. It was a remarkable performance from the old warhorse who looked destined for the glue factory after the opening game of the season following an epic spell of 22 overs left his knee and ankle resembling a beach ball.

However, he hauled himself off the operating table and turned in a fine performance with both bat and ball, as he closed in on the magical 250-wicket mark (his tally stands at 247) and also recorded his first half-century for the club with a bravura performance at Norwich where he blazed away in a pinch-hitting role.

These days he may be a wine-drinker and a mentor to the young Freeman but he still relishes the challenge of bowling up the hill into the wind – even if he’d rather come lolloping downhill with the breeze at his back if he had the choice. He can still cause problems for opponents with the new ball and likes nothing more than the challenge of taking on superior opposition – as at Norwich where he took 1-48 in seven overs and was launched to various parts of East Anglia.

Although the wolf of eternal oblivion is clawing at the door, Keeley will gird up his loins, ply himself with pills and potions, smear himself with deep heat, pull on his supports and take the field of battle once more, ready to defy the sands of time and his latest bout of injuries to ride into battle like Charlton Heston at the end of El Cid.

Chris Latino (2007: 179 Runs @ 10.53.) came on in leaps and bounds last season – at least he would have done if he’d been able to leap and bound. Unfortunately due to a series of knee problems that would make Heather Mills wince Latino struggles somewhat in the leaping and bounding department.

It was a big year for Latino who demonstrated his commitment to the cause by taking his place at the crease shortly after being thrown off his motorbike (if he was a comic book hero he’d have scored a century but hey-ho) and improved immensely with the bat. He shed his status as a walking wicket (and no sniggering from those who think he can’t walk) and hit his first six for the club. He also produced a series of improved scores and heads into 2008 with a higher score than his bosom chum Matty Freeman to his name. A first 50 awaits in 2008.

Despite his improvements with the bat, Latino’s heroics are perhaps best demonstrated in the field. The man who knows no pain may have the knees of a weak and feeble woman but he has the heart of a lion and is ever-willing to hurl himself in the way of a speeding cricket ball. He has shown the willingness to stand in as wicketkeeper and despite a catching technique that owes much to an alligator’s jaws he manages to hold on to most of what he gets to.

Darren Lunney (2007: 581 Runs @ 25.26.) had an excellent year with the bat as he shrugged aside the disappointments and embarrassments of 2006. Armed with fresh willow, he routinely weighed in with runs in the middle order despite one stretch of futility where he would have struggled to make contact with a beach ball. Despite his failed one-man pitch invasion at Potton, Lunney’s improvements with the bat were highlighted by his 98, the highest score of his career. After coming so close to drinking from the sweet waters of success – only to have to settle for the customary briny, brackish brown ale of which he is so fond – Lunney will be determined to go one step further in 2008 and post the first century of his career. There are times at the start of his innings where he can bear an unfortunate resemblance to a man who has never played the game before but he should kick on this year. His fielding remains a mixed bag, invariably stopping everything that comes his way but too often shelling chances that should be routine for a man with his talent – or in fact a man with hands. He turned the course of the Herts Village Trophy final with a brilliant run out and has aspirations to bowl more in 2008. Many of us have aspirations to go to bed with Cameron Diaz!

Gareth Mathewson (2007: 6 Wickets @ 19.85.) was a crack commando who was sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Today he survives as a soldier of fortune in the Los Angeles underground (or possibly as an estate agent in Hemel Hempstead). If you have a problem, if no one else can help, then if you can find him, maybe you can hire... Actually, don’t bother calling him because he'll be in communicado and probably won’t turn up.

Qumar (2007: 60 Runs @ 20.00. 11 Wickets @ 22.55.) was plagued by a variety of injuries last year and will hope to be at peak fitness in the months ahead. Qumar’s main asset is his bowling. On his day he has the ability to extract pace and movement from the pitch even if he does occasionally resort to trying to bouncing out batsmen at Offley, a tactic that has only had limited success – even though it has been enthusiastically adopted at times by Matty Freeman. He is arguably the club’s most potent opening bowler and can cause problems for the best batsmen whenever he chugs into bowl like a freight train steaming uphill on slippery tracks.

Qumar is still searching for his first half-century for the club. Considering his faith in his batting and relative prowess at the crease – only Phil Gourd has scored more runs for Offley & Stopsley without posting 50 – Qumar’s failure to reach 50 is one of the great Offley mysteries. He has the ability, he simply does not have the scores or career average (12.09) to justify it. Woulda, coulda, shoulda – hasn’t.

According to the statistics he failed to take a catch in any of his 10 appearances last year but that should not be regarded as an indictment of his fielding as he is best deployed in positions where catches are not routinely offered. Like the changing room.

Rizwan (2007: 119 Runs @ 9.15. 24 Wickets @ 28.13.) Finally enjoyed some luck with the ball last season and claimed the first five-wicket hauls of his career. A typically fortune-starved bowler, Rizwan regularly picked up wickets, proving too quick for a number of batsmen. He also beamed a pensioner in the dark against Therfield which was mildly amusing – providing you weren’t the pensioner in question.

Rizwan also played his best innings for the club, hammering 42 in a tight run chase against Houghton Town to help set up victory. However, after that there wasn’t much to write home about as he set about collecting ducks like a demented Elmer Fudd. He bagged seven in all, including a glorious stretch of four in a row that briefly earned him the nickname Audi.

Damien Sale (2007: 2 Runs @ 1.00.) didn’t have a lot of luck last year but produced some good performances for the second team and has shown that he is a reliable presence behind the stumps and is set to start the season as Bexfield’s preferred choice as wicketkeeper for the seconds.

Dathan Sale (2007: 2007: 23 Runs @ 7.67.) did well for the seconds and was a little unfairly asked to open the batting for the first team when he was called upon. He stands out from a number of Offley players in that he seems to have a vague familiarity with the concept of the forward defensive shot and has the potential to be a solid contributor in the months ahead.

Mark Tattersall (2007: 540 Runs @ 38.57. 32 Wickets @ 15.81.) produced stellar numbers last year and claims he would have taken at least 40 wickets if Steve Hoar had hands. Perhaps. Either way, Tattersall had some cause to ask the question, “Whose the daddy?” after his efforts with bat and ball in 2007. Of course he can ask the question all the time now as he is a father for the first time, even though he still seems to have the build of a heavily pregnant woman – or Wayne Cutts.

His batting continues to flourish unencumbered by such frivolities as technique and his ability to smash the ball out of the ground is a testament to his eye and lack of interest in having to run quick singles. His cultured smears and hoicks suggest it is only a matter of time before he becomes the first batsman to sign a contract to endorse a scythe instead of a bat.

He generates swing and bounce with the ball and decimated Ickleford at Wardown Park last year. For some reason, snaring the wicket of amateur DJ Martin McCulley gave him particular pleasure. He has taken the fourth most wickets in club history (154) although doubtless thinks that if there was a righteous God and his fielders put in the same amount of effort that he does he’d be closing in on 300 by now.

Marc Ward - Captain Offley & Stopsley Colts 2007: 36 Runs @ 6.00. 4 Wickets @ 38.75.) emerged at the end of last season after graduating from the Keeley Academy. He captained the colts and also produced some quietly effective performances for the first team. He was named Young Player of the Year after an impressive start to his Offley career and should enjoy another good season in 2008.

That just about covers it. Then again, as Vanessa Williams once said, sometimes the snow comes down in June, sometimes the sun goes round the moon and there’s nothing wrong with saving the best for last. Richie Barker (2007: 630 Runs @ 22.50. 76 Wickets @ 14.11.) set two records last season, most wickets in a season and most inept dismissals, as he found various ways both to dismiss batsmen and bring about his own downfall, although dragging on a wide that was swinging towards slip first ball of the match at Ickleford was probably the shining moment during a campaign when his batting shone like a freshly laid dog turd. He also played in every game last season, evidence of what can be achieved when you haven’t got a great deal else to do and are glad of any opportunity to get out of the house. He needs only 69 runs to become the first Offley player to score 8,000 runs (if he repeats last year’s form that ought to happen sometime in July by which time Bexfield will have got there first) and has a couple of points to prove after a season where his form with the bat fluctuated between iffy and abysmal, the trip to Chorleywood not withstanding when he was rather magnificent.

Quite how 76 batsmen succumbed to his lack of turn is a mystery albeit one that he’s liable to lose little sleep over. The only resemblance he bears to Shane Warne may lie in the pizzas they’ve both eaten and the various things they’ve applied to their hair over the years but they’re both capable of standing at slip and making suitably helpful observations whenever the mood seizes them. A lot of people thought Shane Warne was a **** as well.

So here’s to 2008, another year in the sun and enough alcohol to ease the pain associated with running around like lunatics at this time of life. After all, one day we may actually have to grow up and find a civilised way of spending the weekends. But not yet though.

Not yet, no way, not never . . . . . . . . . . . . .