Sunday 16 November ~
“I've definitely learned from my sendings off and I won’t be doing anything silly this season.” Those were the words of former Walsall and England Under-18 winger Ishmel Demontagnac prior to the start of the 2006-07 season, referring to the two red cards he’d received the season before for violent conduct. Whatever lessons he learned did not last long enough to prevent his contract being terminated by Walsall this week for “a series of serious breaches of club discipline”, in the words of the BBC. Last Saturday he was red-carded for an off-the ball incident against Scunthorpe in the FA Cup, just eight minutes after taking the field as a substitute. Then in the wee hours of Sunday morning he was arrested for a breach of the peace (one likes to imagine him at 4am passionately re-enacting the previous day’s sending-off with an old-fashioned red post-box), and that was that. Despite Demontagnac’s “fantastic talent”, manager Jimmy Mullen said “the club felt enough was enough”.
The troubled story of the archetypal maverick player is subject more than most to tired repetition. It’s only a couple of months since Demontagnac, 20, scored a hat-trick in a 5-2 drubbing of Southend United. He’s young, fast and skilful – the kind of player that fans love to watch, now more than ever. The kind of matchwinner every manager wants to turn a game with a moment of individual brilliance. “What he’s got in terms of his ability, he should be playing in the Premier League,” claimed Mullen. “But obviously there’s something within him, the person, that stops him from doing it.” Mullen is bright enough to avoid the cliche about the player being his own worst enemy, because we’ve heard it all before. There’s Baxter, Best, Gascoigne and Cantona of those that made it to the top but could have done so much better. Then there’s Demontagnac and countless unknown others that were thrown out before their time came, because they refused or were unable to fit in.
Given Demontagnac’s history and the length of time he’s spent at Walsall, it’s clear that the club tried their best. There’s a limit to all human tolerance, and once we’ve been pushed far enough most of us will cut ties with wayward friends in our own self-interest. Just as we might enjoy a mate’s pub banter for the first two hours but tire of extracting him from a brawl at last orders every Saturday night, so we can marvel at a winger’s speed, trickery and improvisation but eventually become exasperated when he leaves you a man short in an FA Cup tie with the score at 1-1, and all just because he lost his rag, yet again. Within the team itself, there’s the possible disruption caused by such a personality, not to mention the resentment that results from an individual player receiving special dispensation. And so he ends up sacked, because not all football clubs have the resources to be a reform school or a psychological counselling clinic.
None of this tells us why it always seems to be the players who are most expressive and unique on the field that have the most problems away from it. Could it be that, in general, it is almost impossible for a true flair player to feel accepted in a team of solid, hard-working journeymen? Does a superiority born of knowing too well the depth of your own skill boil over into frustration when things don’t go your way? Are the expectations of the club and the fans so high that the prospect of damning their hopes turns a player to drink, providing at the same time a ready-made excuse for sub-par play? Or are daring players inherently just unbearable, cocky gits whose downfall is scripted by their own arrogance?
Demontagnac’s best hope could be that non-conformist players tend to be given another chance by a succession of clubs, in the same way that some women think they’ll be the one to change a handsome but womanising lush into a steady, sober husband. Perhaps his sacking by Walsall’s will wake him up once and for all and the player’s potential will not go unwasted. Sadly, though, both his own track record and the history of flawed genius suggest that he will repeat the cycle of self-destructive behaviour, punctuated with ever-diminishing moments of brilliance until his contract is terminated one final time. Ian Plenderleith