The loss of the anecdotal footballer

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
February 27, 2018

There doesn’t seem to be much place in football for romantic license anymore. The trend now is for relentless realism at every turn and anyone who dwells on the colour of individual moments or the art behind the consequences is viewed, quite unfairly, as having missed the point.

Consider, for instance, the demise of the traditional match-report, chased from the world by a pressing need to learn and conclude. On the one hand, that’s reflective of digital trends, but on the other it seems to have been instructed by the game’s growing sense of self-importance. With each round of fixtures, new intellectual ground must be broken. What we knew about a player or team on Friday must be corrected and evolved by Monday morning.

In that context, those who linger within their similes are labouring under a misapprehension. What’s the point in trying to bring the game to life when, already, it exists in full technicolour for everyone, all of the time.

But there must be some people who miss the way things use to be – how, for instance, players’ reptutations used to grow in anecdotal form.

This struck me while re-reading Forever Young, Oliver Kay’s excellent book documenting the short, unusual life of Adrian Doherty. As most will be aware, Doherty was considered one of the finest players to ever pass through Manchester United’s academy, but serious injury conspired against him, driving him from the game, into the wilderness and, indirectly, to an early demise.

He doesn’t exist online. At least not in any substantial form. If he were to have played today, even if he would ultimately have suffered the same fate, YouTube would be full to bursting with evidence of his talent. Each of his traits would have its own subsection in one of those amateur scouting videos, replete with arrows and spotlights, and it would be easy to imagine the kind of future Doherty would likely have had. In fact, there would be hundreds of different bloggers telling you with dead-eyed certainty exactly what kind of future was waiting for him.

From a presevation perspective, it’s sad. The curiousity can never be satisfied and most of us will never know what it is to see Adrian Doherty with a ball at his feet. In a contradictory way, though, it’s also rather wonderful. Because no evidence exists to restrain the accounts of those who played with him or who watched him play, Doherty’s legend has no real boundaries.

That’s particularly true with him. A winger, all pace and flair, and commonly described as being a more rounded talent than Ryan Giggs; how can the imagination not run wild? But perhaps it’s good that it does and that the reptuation of someone like Doherty isn’t bookended by something as inarguable as an actual career.

Those who are now in their early thirties and older will remember the whispers which preceded Joe Cole’s arrival in the game. He, supposedly, was the most gifted technical footballer of many generations, someone who decorated every youth or reserve match in which he played with glinting skill. Most people never saw those games, but they were real enough in the mind – and in that daydream, Cole was less a footballer and more a circus act. When he first started making senior appearances, he was a reason to watch West Ham, with his every touch promising something that fans had never seen before. It sounds terribly naive now, but that was the size of his reputation and the effect of the many, many stories which had seaped into the public domain.

Ultimately, Cole was more fun as a hypothetical. Even had his career gone entirely to plan, nothing could ever have satisfied the anticipation. When something new, different or better is promised, but then not properly defined, the reality can never be as exciting.

Often, football itself struggles to live up to its own legend.

Reading through the lyrical descriptions of very old players, for instance, would seem to confirm that. Those were times before television and when, consequently, a certain degree of poetic liberty was permissable. Unincumbered by inconveniences like television or super slow motion replay, the writers of the time let their pens run wild. The retelling of goals scored by Jackie Milburn for instance, or the antics of someone like Len Shackleton, are always accompanied by a wink and a smile, and more often with a layer of implausible detail. Shots were struck with impossible force. Eight players were dribbled past instead of three. In The Footballer Who Could Fly, Duncan Hamilton describes one Shackleton performance as being like “swathes of colour across the pitch”. It’s lovely. It’s incredibly vague, tells the reader precisely nothing about the way Shackleton played that day or what he achieved, but it’s very fitting.

It probably also flattered the experience of being there. Just as poetry continues to horribly misrepresent the trudging horror of the first World War, reading about Milburn’s siege-gun shooting is probably more thrilling than it could possibly have been in real life. The mystique and symbolism is always applied after the event, after the true drama fades.

The more obvious example from that era, perhaps of all time, is Duncan Edwards. Like many of his contemporaries, precious little footage of him exists and yet his greatness is incontestable Interestingly, the few clips of him which do survive all show a very dated player, one who can’t be placed in any sort of context. Nevertheless, his legacy remains vast. The story of his size and power mixed with the Chinese Whispers of his youth mean that, even in an age of hardened cynicism, the theory of what he might have been continues to grow. In his case, as is so often true, the anecdotes are more potent than any video footage could ever be.

The fascination with someone like Adrian Doherty, then, comes from somewhere similar. He doesn’t stand comparison with Edwards, but the descriptions which do colour his career and the ellipsis which dangles sadly from its end, mean that he is a footballer we are free to intpret. To draw as we want, to turn into our own private ideal.

Essentially, to imagine – a right which no longer really exists.

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