Wednesday, 1 September 2010

New challenges. Variety in life. Why do so few footballers crave these basic desires?

First off, I'm going to start this blog by comparing Football Manager with the real world. This is done and dusted with a minimum of fuss, so bear with me.

I've been playing Football Manager 2010 on a reasonably regular basis since it's launch late last autumn. For the first time in almost a decade, I'm actually quite good at it. I've taken AFC Wimbledon up the leagues, taken over a Liverpool side that had persevered with Rafa Benitez until 2014 and turned them into double winners, and reversed the fortunes of Lecce and Sheffield Wednesday.

But I just can't settle. Once I win one decent trophy, I find I lose interest over the following close season. One trophy in the cabinet and I'm spent - my work there is done. I start eyeing up leagues in other countries, thinking "I quite fancy winning something over there now". Or, I start looking further down the Football Pyramid. Yes, I've won the league with Liverpool, but rather than win it again, would it be more fun to win the Championship with Swansea? Maybe I could get Thurrock into League Two?

This has got me thinking about ambition among real-life footballers and managers, especially those that hang around at one club for ages, winning the same trophies multiple times. Can it ever be more satisfying the second time you win the Premier League or FA Cup, for example? Can it even be equally satisfying? Does Ryan Giggs treasure his fifth, seventh or tenth Premier League winner's medal as much as his first?

English players are particularly prone to staying in one place. Perhaps they develop stronger bonds with devoted supporters that make it harder to leave a club? Steven Gerrard should probably have left Liverpool after winning the Champions League in 2005 and tried to achieve other things in the game somewhere else. Clearly, he was tempted. Was it his bond with the fans that made him stay? Or was it a very English fear of new places, new cultures, funny foreign food, having to learn a language?

Maybe Gerrard's not quite the right example. He's been loyal to his local community and that's pretty admirable. But what about Frank Lampard? Why's he still at Chelsea? Does (or perhaps 'did' is a better word) he worry he'd be a failure at Internazionale or Real Madrid? Was it just safer to stay at a club that based their tactics around him rather than take a risk?

Personally, as a fan, I love it when a player moves somewhere wholly unexpected. Maybe it comes from being eight years old when Luther Blissett joined my team, Bournemouth, in 1988. It came from out of the blue. It was as if, perversely, he wanted to play in AC Milan's kit again. We couldn't believe it. And he was consistently brilliant for us, with a goal record of roughly one in two, often winning us games on his own.

Jose Mourinho's a man after my own heart - get in, grab some trophies, move on to the next challenge. He used to annoy me at Chelsea at times, but since he's gone I've realised how much we need people like that. The continual quest for both success and new challenges are what make truly great football personalities that we can all admire.

Craig Bellamy joined Cardiff last month. If you overlook some of the questionable financial issues behind the deal, it's undeniably a maverick and sexy move. Imagine being a Cardiff season ticket holder and finding out you've got Bellamy. I bet if you'd said to Cardiff fans, "You can have Bellamy for a year, and he'll play his nuts off for you, but you've got to give up beer for the whole season," they'd have bitten your hand off. But he is there. And the boyos have still got frothing pints of Brains in hand. This is certainly the first time I've ever said these words, but fair play to you Craig Bellamy, I nod approvingly in your general direction.

Some more examples of players making shock transfers to clubs that they didn't need to join, they just thought it would be interesting (note, the transfer doesn't have to have been deemed a success over time to qualify here): Attilio Lombardo to Palace in 1997 - came out of left field, excited the fans; David James to Bristol City - nobody saw that one coming, England's World Cup keeper suddenly turning out at Ashton Gate; Real Madrid's Guti to Besiktas this summer - just look at how much it meant to these rather excited Turkish fans; Dave MacKay to Derby during Brian Clough's reign - a double winner and Cup Winners Cup winner dropping a division to join a then-unproven loudmouth at an unfashionable club - ticks all the boxes. Please feel free to suggest any obvious ones I've missed.

Did these players lack ambition in joining these clubs? No. They still wanted to win every week. They might have made themselves big fish in small ponds, but they liked the nature of such a challenge, of bringing new levels of excitement to fans used to mediocrity and same-old-same-old. They could perhaps have earned more money or stood more chance of winning the league elsewhere, but they appreciated that life isn't all about money, and they already had trophies.

I'd like to see more great players drop down the leagues as their enter the twilight of their careers too. Yes, there's a certain nobility to Eric Cantona calling it quits at his peak, but think of the goals and moments we've lost as a result. Yes, there's a risk of iconic players getting kicked by jobbing centre backs at Lincoln on a wet Tuesday night, but that's what referees are there for isn't it?

There is still a chance that in a year or two Paul Scholes will say 'see ya' to Manchester United and have one glorious season at Oldham before he hangs up his boots. If you were an Oldham fan, wouldn't that be just the most exciting and memorable thing that's ever happened to your club? At the very least, it seems he'll do some coaching at Oldham when his playing days are over, but Latics fans want to see the man on the pitch - their pitch. In their kit. Just a few beautiful times.

I'll end with a couple of questions for you to ponder.

If you could pick one player to join your club, who would you pick and why?

And if you could send one player or manager in world football, to one particular club, with purely good intentions rather than anything malicious (ie. no Gary Neville to Liverpool, etc), just for the sheer childlike wonder of it - who would you pick, which club, and why?

Zinedane Zidane's just announced he's coming out of retirement and he's signing for your club as player/coach. Allow yourself the idle dream for a moment. This is football - we need these daydreams to keep our fire for the game burning. But we need them to actually happen sometimes too.


prnapper said...

Shaun Goater delayed retirement to come to the mighty Shrimpers and led us to the League One Title. It's in his book. Ronnie Whelan alfter leaving Liverpool played for us before managing (although he failed that part dramatically). At the moment, given the state we're in, I'm amazed Sturrock's taken over, so I'm happy we're still going...

Sooper Steve's Shin said...

Heskey to Leicester? That was a deal rumoured to be happening earlier this week which could have been up there with Bellamy as a romantic drop down the leagues to return to a hometown club. And he was playing in the World Cup only three months ago!

William said...

Really thought-provoking article. I've got a soft spot for Croatia that goes back to being 12 during Euro 96, so the sight of former Barcelona and Real Madrid man Robert Prosinecki in the heart of midfield for an otherwise very ordinary Portsmouth side in 01/02 was pretty special.

Lanterne Rouge said...

I was at Maine Road when Blissett and Ian Bishop led a fight back for Cherries after Man City had taken a 3-0 lead near the end of the season, delaying City's promotion and provoking mass anguish on the Kippax. Luther deserves to be more fondly remembered than as an AC Milan failure.

Narrow The Angle said...

Memories of Ian Bishop still have Bournemouth fans purring. Only played for us for a season or so, but is still one of our all-time favourites. We sold him for £465,000, which was decent money in 1989. I remember how proud I felt seeing him run out for Man City in the top flight - by the sounds of the game you mention, it's no surprise that City wanted to sign him.

Didn't City thrash United on TV about 5-2 shortly after signing him, with 'Bish' at the heart of things? I have fuzzy but fond memories of that.

Graham said...

It is surely part of the reason that the English national team has remained so uncultured (in footballing terms and personally!). It would do England some good I think if more went to play abroad. My personal favourite at the moment is Edgar Davids turning out at left back for Palace. Brilliant.

Narrow The Angle said...

Totally agree, although I'm not sure that many Palace fans are loving the Davids-at-left-back experience!

Edward Attoe said...

As a West Ham fan I would love to see Carlos Tevez come back to us before he retires. He will never be forgotten for keeping us up in 2007 and we could sure use him now!

As manager goes, well our managers are just warming the seat waiting for the master himself, Paolo Di Canio to make his triumphant return to Upton Park.

Whiters said...

You've forgotten the biggest transfer shock in football history - reigning European footballer of the year and England captain Kevin Keegan joining Southampton!

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