Sentimentality in football: You just can’t help yourselves
Sentimentality in football: high risk, but impossible to resist
In Moscow there is a park containing hundreds of sculptures, including many of the figureheads from Soviet history. When the Soviet Union collapsed, many of these statues were simply pulled up and dumped in the park for posterity. In English it was known as the Park of the Fallen Heroes, and if anything stands as a monument to tarnished legacy, this is surely it.
Football fans are suckers for their heroes, and desperate to believe in a fairy tales. In the space of a few days last week we witnessed the return of two players who epitomised their respective clubs’ most successful eras in modern football. Thierry Henry’s late winner against Leeds sent Arsenal fans into ecstasy. The Emirates Stadium gorged on the euphoria generated by the return of their greatest ever forward.
Then came news that Paul Scholes was making a shock return from exile. He had not forsaken United in their hour of need. This was even more surprising because Alex Ferguson has built his career with a ruthless distrust for sentimentally. It didn’t matter; Scholes also followed the script and found the net in front of his adoring home crowd. In a season where United have been low on excitement, but high on ‘somehow winning despite appearing to be a bit shit’, this was a moment of proper fun.
It’s not just Arsenal and United getting a bit nostalgic. Diego Simeone has just turned up at Atletico Madrid, where he formed part of their last title winning side, and with slightly less fanfare, Jason Euell has been welcomed home by AFC Wimbledon fans, over ten years after he left the Dons. Clearly, the old adage that you should never go back has been exposed as utter bollocks, or has it?
Henry has quickly turned from party boy to killjoy, confronting an irate Arsenal fan and instructing him to “support the team”. The Arsenal board will hope this was a brief misunderstanding; it simply wouldn’t do to have fans turning against someone they recently immortalised in bronze. Granted, this is unlikely, but it highlights the problem with players and managers ‘coming home’. The time elapsed between a player’s initial triumph and their return will inflate their exploits to levels impossible for anyone to replicate, including the player himself.
Robbie Keane’s reputation was tarnished beyond repair when he abandoned his failed Liverpool career six months after leaving White Hart Lane. Having been one of Spurs’ most consistent and valued performers for six seasons (winning player of the year three times in the process) he should have been approaching the cherished ‘legend’ status. But, there was little fanfare when he departed for the second time. You can bet that those leaving drinks were a modest affair – £100 behind the bar and a sandwich buffet.
It’s not surprising players disappoint fans in this way; sentimentality is a luxury few can afford given they have little over a decade to maximise their potential. However, it’s not quite the same for managers who endure a more fickle relationship with fans. Throw in some past glories waiting to be tarnished and you’ve got a dangerous mix of hope and expectation – look no further than Bryan Gunn’s disastrous spell in charge of Norwich.
Gunn was – and hopefully, still is – a Norwich City legend, having been their goalkeeper during the club’s most successful era. That he was able to deliver such consistently excellent performances during a period when he endured the loss of his daughter to leukaemia is worthy of respect from fans beyond the confines of East Anglia. Given his strong emotional ties to the club, Canaries’ fans were understandably excited by his appointment as manager when the team was sliding towards League One. Things started well with a 4-0 win, raising hopes higher, but that was as good as it got. Several defeats followed, and Norwich were relegated. Sadly, that wasn’t the end of it. Norwich lost their opening game in League One by seven goals to one at home to Colchester (managed by Gunn’s replacement, Paul Lambert).
When the score reached 4-0, two fans approached the Norwich bench to vent their disgust, apparently throwing their season tickets at Gunn (the term ‘fans’ is used to describe all sorts of people attending football matches, in this case ‘slack-jawed troglodytes’ might be more appropriate). For a fans’ favourite to have such vitriol directed at him from the same crowd that once held him in such esteem is tragic, and it must have been hard for some of the more evolved Norwich fans to witness. It was obvious that Gunn cared, but that will only cut so much slack with fans when the team suck arse. He was sacked before the next league game.
That was a particularly bitter tale, but it can be more enjoyable. In 1997, Graham Taylor (I know, just indulge me a little) decided to give management another go with Watford. To summarise, Jason Lee was signed (sans pineapple), and Watford won promotion from the third tier as Champions. The following season he took pretty much the same team into the Premier League (sans Jason Lee). They were relegated, of course, but for those of us who missed the halcyon days of the late 1970s and early 1980s, to see Taylor return and deliver back to back promotions was more than enough. The stories were true, he wasn’t mortal, he was a god. Albeit, a god whose powers were rendered utterly useless when deployed outside of south-west Hertfordshire.
Back to the matter in hand, and I hope that Bryan Gunn is still revered for his exploits on the pitch, but that disastrous spell as manager has left a stain, however small, on what should be an immaculate record. With that in mind, how on earth can Kenny Dalglish live up to the expectations of Liverpool fans, given the success he accumulated the first time around at Anfield? It would be safer to wipe the slate clean, but if history has shown us anything, it’s that footballers and managers will always be tempted to go back, and fans will always welcome them. Indeed, football depends on those emotional ties. Fans don’t care for realism; they will always want to dream that new legends of yore can be written. They don’t want to visit the park of the fallen heroes.
Michael Moruzzi. Follow Regista-blog here.
image from welloffside.com