Thursday 22 January ~
A decade ago it was Middlesbrough, not Manchester City, who were buying world-class players. It unnerved Harry Pearson in WSC 153 (November 1999)
There is an Abbot and Costello routine that runs along the lines: “You should never marry a pretty girl.” “Why not?” “She could leave you.” “An ugly girl could leave you too.” “Yeah, but who cares?” While it is admittedly hard to imagine a woman of any type being mad enough to get involved with the irritating comic duo, their double talk contains a kernel of truth, if not for romance then certainly for affairs of the park.
Perhaps it is another aspect of encroaching middle age to go alongside the discovery that Radio 2 is now playing all kinds of really groovy music, but recently when my team Middlesbrough have signed anyone who is, in a football sense, remotely attractive, it has seemed to me more an occasion for unease than pleasure. I find I cannot take any joy in the moment because of a seeping feeling that they are just toying with us and in a matter of moments will dump us in favour of someone more glamorous. Let’s face it, it’s happened before.
As the editorial in WSC 152 pointed out, it is all too easy to get dewy-eyed about the loyalty of players in the past. The illusion that the titans of yesteryear stayed at clubs for life in those rosier days is surely partly explained by nostalgia and partly by the shifting value of time. Thus a striker who stayed a season during our youth appeared to have been loyal for a decade, while in adulthood we greet the announcement that a defender is going to get a benefit match with a cry of “But he only arrived yesterday!”
The truth is that for every player whose troth was more or less forever plighted to Ayresome Park during the Sixties and Seventies (Bill Gates, Gordon Jones, Frank Spraggon) there were others for whom it was just another fling. Many of these, Johnny Crossan, Hugh McIlmoyle and Arthur Horsfield to name but a few, were later revealed as serial philanderers, but that hardly eases the pain of rejection. Instead, the feeling of foolishness tends to aggravate it.
In fact, the only thing worse than losing your heart to a seasoned Lothario is to find that you’ve picked up a bloke when everyone else had deserted him, dusted him down and cooked him a good square meal only to find the minute he’s back on his feet he’s used them to run off with a Champions League contender. Or Aston Villa.
All of which may explain my current feelings towards Christian Ziege. The 26-year-old wing-back has bravely admitted he came to Teesside for one simple reason: no one else wanted him. He had played only fitfully for Milan and was dropped first from Germany’s starting XI and then the squad. The Berlin-born defender’s performances in Euro 96 showed he was capable of being a great player. The question was, how great did I really want him to be? Right from the start, you see, the dilemma was obvious: the better Ziege plays, the less likely he is to stay.
Judging by the language footballers, particularly British ones, use when describing their job, it is clear they think of themselves as warriors. In my opinion they are more like 19th century French courtesans: they live in a perpetual state of readiness for the odd bout of strenuous activity. The clubs, and by extension the fans, are the men who keep them and do so in the knowledge that they will be dispensed with the minute anyone wealthier or of higher rank comes along.
Middlesbrough is not part of football’s aristrocracy, nor a filthy rich arriviste. It is a well-to-do tradesman consumed with jealousy born of an ingrained inferiority complex. Such a club needs players who are good, but not in the showy, coquettish manner that immediately attracts the attention of others.
What I had hoped for from Christian Ziege were solid performances combining safe defence with the odd darting run and the very occasional goal. Instead, what does he do? He tears up and down the wing, pinging in crosses so lethal even Brian Deane can’t fail to get on the end of them and blasts free-kicks into the net from 25 yards. Not content with this flagrant breach of trust he then gets recalled to the German team and celebrates by becoming the first Boro player to score a hat-trick in an international since Wilf Mannion in 1947.
Jesus Christ! He might as well have paraded up and down in his drawers and corset. Sure enough, there was Germany’s assistant manager Uli Stielike whispering in his ear: “In the short term, Middlesbrough might be important to him but I hope it is a short stop.”
As if that wasn’t enough, there is now the arrival of “The New Maradona”, Arturo Marinelli, and the return of Juninho. Asked to explain the Little One’s appeal to female fans the president of his Brazilian fan club once observed: “He looks like the kind of boy who would always love you.” Maybe so. In the end, though, I can’t help feeling we’d be better off getting wholeheartedly involved with Gazza. And I’m sure Bud and Lou would agree.