The game's uncertain financial climate is causing top flight players to fall further and faster than they once did, leaving Cameron Carter bewildered by the pace of the change
There’s a terrible feeling you get as you get older – the sense that your world and its familiar landscape are being discreetly removed by stage-hands while you’re not watching. John Thaw dies, child-smacking is driven underground, Club biscuits devolve to just one orange flavour; it feels, if you’re being particularly paranoid, that the way is being cleared, little by little, for your own exit. It doesn’t help that, amid the hype of big name transfers in summer, some familiar faces are slipping into retirement or semi-obscurity without so much as a goodbye.
The trail of pathos emitted by Paul Gascoigne’s odyssey from Bradford to China to Boston United, via several hundred nights out with Chris Evans, is enough to make Cradle of Filth work on an acoustic ballad for their new album, but other declines have been more dignified and less visible. You take your eye off Rob Lee for a while in March and he’s downsized himself to Wycombe Wanderers like a thief in the night. Rob hasn’t committed himself quite yet to Wanderers’ cause for the forthcoming season because games against Darlington, Shrewsbury and all could clash with offers of television punditry, his occasional sideline. While Rob weighs up this decision, a presumably envious Dean Holdsworth is currently unattached after turning out for Rushden & Diamonds last season, the club being unable to afford his wages for a further year. One of the last men standing of Wimbledon’s “Crazy Gang”, Dean is currently hanging around with his kit hoping to get a game with someone, while former madcap team-mates Lawrie Sanchez, Dennis Wise, Robbie Earle and Vinnie Jones have eased successfully into management, television punditry and non-verbal cinema.
Money is as tight as it’s ever been in the lower leagues and it’s nightmarishly easy for a talented, experienced player to find himself, overnight, slap in the middle of an unseemly jobseeking melee. Nearly 600 League players were released this summer, many of whom will be involved in tense negotiations with lower status clubs who either cannot or will not pay them in the manner to which they have become accustomed. Among the bigger names handed the mitten by their managers in recent weeks are Steve McManaman, Alan Stubbs and Shaka Hislop. McManaman, with television work and a long-standing broadsheet column to his name, has the option of a solid media career to fall back on. The same cannot be said of Don Hutchison, let go by West Ham and rumoured to be training on his own. Television producers will be aware that, on the one hand, Hutchison has not got a broadsheet column to his name, and, on the other, has placed his genitals squarely in the public domain. Meanwhile, Sunderland have released Brian Deane and Michael Bridges, which is a shame. It would have been nicer, and a tribute to their service to the game, if these two could have been released a month earlier at the Live 8 concert by Bono, instead of some stupid white doves.
Dwight Yorke’s move, to Sydney FC, represents a significant loss: the top scorer in Manchester United’s treble year, perpetrator of the subtlest feints, touches and turns, and one of the game’s greatest ever smilers – even when he missed a sitter. A man, furthermore, who had to film his own sex drive in order to believe it. This summer he ambled out of the limelight, heading straight for the beach. Only 33, Yorke passed over all other offers to line up for a new Australian team; an act, as one Sydney inhabitant observed, rather like going to England to surf. And how do I find out? In the small print on the Guardian’s website. While Yorke faded away in front of Premiership crowds, Paul Warhurst, who won the Premiership with Blackburn in 1995, has been on a hobo-esque journey from Barnsley to Grimsby to Blackpool to non-league, without anything as complex as a financial transaction taking place. Each downward transfer triggers its own melancholy mental image: Julian Joachim and Noel Whelan – given away to Boston United by Leeds and Aberdeen respectively – are two kittens in a basket in a disfigured forest. Dwight Yorke’s move comes to us as a Bacchanalian orgy, at the point where the guests have either gone home or are asleep.
Sometimes there is a positive side. Learning that flame-haired Tommy Johnson – surely only yesterday partnering Henrik Larsson at Celtic – had been passed on to Scunthorpe in a secret ceremony in June, I soon came upon Peter Beagrie, knocking on 40 and sworn to play on United’s left wing for one more season. Beagrie has for years been left to wander unmonitored, like a British space probe, and I had discovered him, alive and in shorts, by happy chance. It is mistakenly assumed that Peter’s trademark backflip goal celebration was prized for its beauty, but in truth its chief value lay in its rarity – he only got to do it 15 times in eight seasons at Everton and Manchester City.
Yet Beagrie plays on, as do Kevin Pressman and Des Walker at Mansfield (they are joining in pre-season training as player-coaches anyway), with manager Carlton Palmer also thinking about having one last crack. All of them battling to stay in my football landscape, fighting against the dying of the light; playing King Canute as the sea of time and nippy young forwards flood past.
From WSC 223 September 2005. What was happening this month