Football’s Summers are long and barren. Broadcasting hours usually reserved for live coverage and associated news are being filled by restrospective programming and we’ve reached the point in the year when the new season really can’t arrive quickly enough.
Still, all this nostalgia has my thinking about greatness.
In our own Premier League, the pantheon of legends is largely filled by players who have won the competition or who have represented clubs who, year-on-year, contested for the title. That’s very rational because, of course, those players are typically synonymous with significant, evergreen moments that everyone remembers.
So that works; sustained high performance will always fuel an enduring legacy and for as long as team sports exist, that will remain the case.
But there are more subtle levels to greatness and ones which are accessible to those players who aren’t impossibly gifted. In the contemporary game, serial winners may be immortalised by their medal-collections, but there are secondary and tertiary levels of regard which are populated by those who, through different means, used their careers to inspire admiration.
Longevity is very important. There are some very famous examples of one-club men who existed right at the top of the game and who retired having won everything on offer, but it’s interesting to note the gloss that loyalty can apply to an otherwise mundane CV. Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville are rightly considered Manchester United legends, but it’s unquestionably easier to be true to a club of that size than it would be to one lower the down the pyramid.
That’s perhaps why the legacy of Matthew Le Tissier still resonates: a fabulously gifted player who could have existed well beyond the level he achieved, but who was tied to an inferior club by something which transcended the sport. It helped, of course, that Le Tissier was a once-in-a-generation talent who left behind a timeless collection of goals, but his significance to his town and his supporters was unquestionably swelled by his resistance to the forces of ambition.
Le Tissier frequently put that Southampton side on his shoulders, but that he never lead them anywhere near a domestic final or a league title was irrelevant; it was contextual heroism.
Ledley King, too. King is an interesting case, because had his career not been butchered by persistent knee trouble, he would most likely have left Tottenham at some point. He was too gifted a defender to belong in the ordinary Spurs sides of the early part of the last decade and, had he been less athletically restricted, he might well have spent his mid-to-late twenties captaining his country. That he didn’t is a modern tragedy, but that he still achieved the playing levels that he did is nothing short of remarkable. We’ve all heard the stories: unable to train between games, King would slot effortlessly back into the Tottenham defence and regularly be his side’s best player.
He isn’t loved for that ability, though - or at least not purely because of it. With King there was a struggle, both physical and mental. To spend an entire career cursed by misfortune is a difficult cross to bear and one which would have buckled the knees of a lesser character. King, in contrast to his literal fragility, had a iron will; he raged against his circumstances and frequently defied them, producing a career which probably contradicted all medical logic.
That made him great. His mantelpiece is almost bare and his best years are nothing more than a memory, but his admirable emotional resilience and his tangible heart allowed him to forge a very special relationship with his supporters. Because King was so obviously damaged and imperfect, he belonged to the crowd in a way that a Champions League winner, with no human dimensions, ever could.
The loyalty is not so important, because that clearly comes with an asterisk. Instead, it’s what he was willing to put his body through for the cause that carved his face into the mountain.
At the end of the 2016 season, Tony Hibbert’s current contract with Everton will expire. Hibbert will by then be thirty-five and, at a guess, he will then retire. Seamus Coleman’s development as a player has, in recent seasons, cast him out to the Goodison Park periphery, but the full-back has managed to retain his significance - as if, in place of his literal purpose, he has developed almost a moral relevance on Merseyside.
Hibbert is sometimes idolised in a slightly ironic way and, having never been the most gifted player, that’s perhaps forgivable. But he is another example of someone whose place in history is assured by more than just longevity. That Tony Hibbert has been at Everton for twenty-four years is important, but of greater relevance has been his mirroring of his side’s place in the game. Under Roberto Martinez, the team may now have a stylish facade, but for most of the last two-and-a-half decades Everton have lived off their more stubborn qualities. Hamstrung by financial restrictions and frequently out-gunned by well-armed rivals, they’ve been one of the modern era’s most obdurate teams and have frequently achieved well beyond their right.
The cliche with a player like Hibbert is to say that he bleeds his club colours and that he is Everton. It’s such an over-used turn of phrase that it’s lost all meaning, but in this case it’s apt - Hibbert, much like his employer, has defied his limitations through sheer force of will and those shared characteristics will always create a reverence-provoking bond. Form peaked and troughed and players came and went, but Hibbert, with his balancing properties, was the constant.
Supporters need that kind of player - especially in these highly fluid times - and they’re right to venerate him.
Football will always celebrate its champions and hoist its glitterati into the air, but there’s still room for the everyman hero and for those players who are able to chime a different chord with their supporters. Greatness can be achieved in all manner of ways and it isn’t only earned by jumping through a series of gold-plated hoops.
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