The big mismatch

What more is there to say about Stan Collymore? David Wangerin takes up the challenge and comes to the conclusion that he simply ended up in the wrong job

Should have, would have, could have. Dalian At­kinson springs to mind. All the tools you could want: strong, quick, good in the air, a nose for goal and al­ways capable of the extraordinary. Should have been an England regular, could have guided Aston Villa to a championship or two, would have been one of the top strikers the club has ever seen. Drag out the video of his wonder-goal at Selhurst Park in 1992, the one where he runs through the entire Wimbledon team and plants the ball in the net with such graceful nonchalance. Even the strains of Clive Tyldesley’s post facto commentary can’t re­move the lustre of such genius.

And what happened after that? You tell me. Dalian went on to miss a lot of first-team football at Villa, for reasons which re­main unclear to many. He never figured in an England manager’s plans, never play­­ed for a title contender, never came close to doing on the pitch all that he should have. Depending on who you listen to he was too lazy, too arrogant or hung out with the wrong crowd. The last I heard he was in Saudi Arabia, yet another mem­ber of the If Only Club.

To Villa fans, this is hardly uncommon. Indeed, they have seen it again very recently. Fast-forward a few years and there he is, Stan Collymore – Stan the Man, Big Stan, the Number Nine the Holte End had waited for ever since Peter Withe threw his last wrist-bands over the perimeter fence. Since then, many had come and gone – Aspinalls and Thompsons, McInallys and Cascarinos – but Cannock-born Stan, we were told, was the genuine article, Villa through and through. This was no Savo Milosevic, this was the guy Liverpool had whipped out eight-and-a-half million clams for. He was all but the mis­sing ingredient in the club’s bid for sup­remacy.

As you know, this never happened. It never happened in spades. In two seasons at Villa Park, Stan managed fewer goals than many players we’ve never heard of. Offloaded in ignominy, he became the biggest bust in a club history littered with busts. His career continued to sail a turbulent, troubled course, ending, it seems, in relative obscurity at Real Oviedo where he lasted slightly longer than an eye-blink.

Now, barely 30 years old, Stan has apparently decided to bring his footballing career to an end, for reasons best known only to himself. The writing had probably been on the wall. Few gave him much chance of getting his act together on the continent. By then Stan the Man had become Troubled Stan, Controversial Stan, Unsettled Stan. Talk of him spearheading the England attack had long since de­scended into talk of him turning up to play. Perhaps the story would have been different had fate been slightly kinder to him at Leicester. His partnership with Emile Heskey had the makings of one of the most lethal in the Premiership. But then Heskey was sold, and Stan broke his leg and Martin O’Neill went to Celtic. Rotten luck, or all part of the game?

Did Stan deserve fate to be kinder to him? It is hard to think of anyone who has been given more second and third chances without taking advantage of any of them. His time at Villa Park was desperate, plagued as it was by a string of off-the-pitch incidents, mental difficulties and a singular inability to inspire the confidence of John Gregory. At Liverpool, he’d been fined for thought­less remarks about team-mates and the man­ager. And we all still remember his lonely goal­scoring celebrations at Forest. On and on it goes, right back to his YTS days at Walsall, where his contract wound up being cancelled. It’s more irritating than depressing.

Despite the 55-goal partnership with Robbie Fowler at Anfield, or the 41 goals he scored in 65 games at the City Ground, it’s unlikely that anyone ever coaxed the best out of Collymore, and certainly not the heights his transfer fees demanded. Each new employer was of­fered a promising debut and a sprinkling of impressive performances thereafter, but much misery and controversy along the way. And so, after ever-diminishing intervals, Stan would be put back on the market.

Even the most facile review of Collymore’s behaviour must have filled any suitor with se­cond thoughts. The clubs that took him on must have done so as a challenge, either arrogant en­ough to think they could succeed where everyone else had failed or cold-blooded enough not to care about his conduct off the pitch. Or maybe they were all just blinded by those goals.

Even now, managers like Southend’s David Webb try to tempt him back. Stan, though, claims his mind is made up. And with the increase in his free time, one hopes he will put some of it towards a little reflection. Does he consider the £17 million spent on fees in his name good value for the clubs concerned? Were the three England caps a fair representation of his international potential? If not, why not? Was any of it down to his attitude and behaviour, or were these blameless and simply misinterpreted by a hostile media? Would he admit to any errors in judgement, or would he still do it all the same way again?

To many – to most – Collymore probably represents the epitome of the modern dysfunctional foot­baller, a young man who accumulated too much money and met too few genuine friends along the way, someone who collapsed under the weight of his own ego and scarcely deserves our sympathy. To others, he is seen as an iconoclast, gifted but misunderstood, a guy who deserved to be cut a little more slack than the steady, unspectacular players alongside him. More sympathetic handling might have been all that separated him from a gleaming career: a stroke of the ego here and there, more ready forgiveness for the odd dose of youthful high spirits or anger. So what if he screwed up now and again? We accept that kind of behaviour in other fields of entertainment.

But maybe neither was the case. Maybe it’s just this. Football is not a career for everyone – and the presence of talent does not necessarily alter that fact. Not everybody who signs for the big money is capable of putting the abundant free time and income to constructive use, particularly when – so the stereotype would have us believe – footballers are scarcely noted for their pru­dence. Equally, football is a team sport, and as such demands that players main­tain a certain level of trust and respect for each other and their manager. Often, this can be more important than individual talent. Few would argue that Collymore had the physical traits to succeed in the game; perhaps it was these other things that were missing.

It would be nice to imagine that over the past few weeks Stan did give his position plenty of thought and, marooned in some Iberian hotel, reached the conclusion that football ultimately was not the life he was meant to lead. Granted, wishing to become a film star is no saner an option. But it may be naive to expect someone so accustomed to bright lights and fast living to be satisfied with, say, running a country pub.

Let’s take that thought and go home with it. Classify Stan as a failure if you like, but for now restrict it to the game he played. Maybe, in terms of self-fulfilment, his best is yet to come. And if we never hear from the guy again, perhaps it will be best for all concerned.

From WSC 171 May 2001. What was happening this month