Standing on the shoulders of giants
The season is upon us, a new landscape beneath us, a much changed Premier League ahead of us, here and elsewhere.
As august an organ as “Four Four Two” is already telling us that this is going to be the “Season of the Super Gaffer”, but even the most exalted of those leaders, even the Special One himself would, in their more relaxed and revealing moments, confess that in the end, the game is all about the players. They can target them in the market, coach and prepare them on the training field but in the end, they’re only ordinary men. It’s the players who have to be supermen on Saturday.
Over the summer, I had chance to read Henry Winter’s book “Fifty Years Of Hurt”, not least because it contains a nice line on how good the Albion programme is. That lapse of judgement aside, it’s an excellent read on the trials and tribulations that have beset England since the glory days of ’66, but many of the conclusions relate just as well to the club game.
A recurring theme throughout was the past and its relationship to the present. In the English context, that is the constant comparison to the Boys of ’66, the Bobby Moore statue, the images of Sir Geoff Hurst smashing in that fourth goal, of Nobby Stiles dancing across Wembley of the pictures of that golden day that festoon the national stadium.
Conventional wisdom is that in the shadow of the legends, their successors wither and die and that they should be protected from such comparisons. Yet in talking to some of the genuine greats that have followed in their footsteps, the likes of Lineker, Gascoigne, Owen, the men worthy of mention in the same breath as Ball, Peters, Charlton, Winter uncovers something very different.
In looking at those images and films of past success, the best players visualise themselves inside their own version. They thirst for more tales of past success, use it as a driving force, as impetus to go on and scrawl their own indelible mark across the game’s history. That is what the big players do, what they want, to be revered in the same way as those giants who have gone before.
It is part of the make up of a proper footballer, as a chance conversation with Darren Fletcher in a corridor at the training ground earlier this year underlined. Fletcher grew up at the most decorated football club in the land surrounded by some of our game’s biggest names, on the walls and in the dressing room. If any environment is likely to cow a youngster into fear and submission, it’s that one.
But Manchester United’s players don’t go running from that, they embrace it. The skipper told the tale of Gary Neville bringing photographs of the Busby Babes into their new training facility, giving the place character, and, above all, a soul. Good players, proper players, grow in that atmosphere, they understand that a club with a soul is one where they can become immortal.
It isn’t just the job of players to look at the past and aim to emulate and surpass it. We’ve got to do the same. Look at the photos of the massed ranks of The Hawthorns of the past, 30,000 of them, 40,000, maybe 50,000. They created atmospheres that crackled and roared. Your dad, your grandmother, maybe even you if you’re old enough to recall those days.
We demand that he players stand on the shoulders of giants, and so we should. But with a new season stretching ahead of us, a clean slate to be scrawled, let’s demand it of ourselves as well. Whatever else happens, however the results fall, let’s resolve that when we look at ourselves in the mirror next May, we lived up to the giants of the past. The rest is out of our hands.