Berlin’s Olympiastadion, March 26th 2016. Nathaniel Clyne walks purposely off the pitch after England’s ridiculous three-goal comeback against Germany, grinning broadly and knowing that he has just taken a huge leap past Kyle Walker in making the right-back slot his own. On this memorable evening his performance has been highly accomplished, locking down a 120 metre strip of German turf to the extent where the opposition soon gave up to probe and scheme elsewhere. Okay so Dele Alli was surely going to claim the man-of-the-match award for his own break-out night but that’s no reflection on the Liverpool star: full-backs never win such plaudits.
Especially full-backs like Clyne. Durably consistent and rarely needing to resort to showiness, the defender was marked out by the Guardian in September 2015 as a shoo-in to occupy the Liverpool and England right flank for years to come, a destiny he carved out ably and without fuss in the two seasons that followed. In that time he successfully made more tackles than any other club team-mate, was reliably on hand to provide attacking assistance, and received so many post-match 7/10 ratings a casual observer might have suspected the numbers were added to his surname by deed poll. In this regard, and in so many others, there is a comparison to be made with the archetypal exponent of superb full-backery Gary Neville, a correlation that probably won’t be welcomed by reds of a Merseyside persuasion but is meant entirely positively. Both were and are denied their share of the spotlight due to their position and propensity for getting the job done well. Sadly in football, as in life, excellence gets boring when it isn’t counter-weighted by incompetence and routine excellence in particular gets taken for granted.
Indeed, it gets taken for granted until it gets taken away.
Melwood, September 4th 2017. After Clyne’s omission from Liverpool’s Champion’s League squad prompts speculation that the player has fallen out of favour with Jurgen Klopp, it is revealed that the player’s back problem is more complicated than first assumed and he will be out of action until January at the earliest. Having played just 45 minutes of a pre-season friendly at Tranmere, the 26 year-old now faces a lengthy spell on the sidelines, buckling down to rehab while seeing the fine work he’s grafted together to reach this point of his career run the risk of stagnation. Unintentionally Klopp half-alludes to this when seeking to downplay the loss of arguably their best defender to assuage the Liverpool support: “What is positive for us is how Joe (Gomez) and Trent (Alexander-Arnold) have stepped up and grasped their opportunities”.
Should you be the type of fellow to decry the privileged, lucrative life of a Premier League footballer you need only look at Nathaniel Clyne’s past week to acknowledge how transitory it is; how fragile even. Regardless of their status or standing players are forever just one twist or turn away from being demoted from superstar to yesterday’s man and though it would be farcical to write off Clyne in such terms – he will after all return before the campaign is out – it was notable how quickly the attention of the Liverpool fan-base switched. Collectively there was now a revelling in the excitement and possibilities of youth with Clyne pushed to the margins. Go ‘ed Trent lad.
There is no condemnation of Liverpool fans for such fickleness incidentally. Far from it. This is football and this is who we are. It happens all of the time. Injured players remain in our thoughts but are dropped from our conversations. Even so it’s hard not to feel sympathy for Clyne who after maximising his talents and attaining his ultimate career goals is now in danger of seeing it all slip away simply from enduring a long lay-off at the worst imaginable time. Alexander-Arnold looks to be an exceptional prospect and acclimatisation to Champions League football will only add to his repute. The same goes for Gomez – who himself has suffered the misfortune of long-term injury – while on the international stage Walker has now made the right-back slot his own with a World Cup on the horizon.
Across the England back-line we have seen a similar tale play out with Luke Shaw. On joining Manchester United in 2014 – like Clyne also from Southampton – the left-back was widely hailed as the Three Lions’ first choice for a decade to come. He was 18, the world’s fourth most expensive defender, and embarking on a roadmap that only led to personal success. Indeed so highly was he regarded that a senior figure at the club willingly passed on to scribbling pressmen that they had just signed a lad who would become the best full-back in the world.
Shaw’s subsequent travails have been well documented and can be short-handed to a cruel and horrible injury and a new manager who clearly doesn’t rate him. Yet even if the latter aspect distances Shaw’s situation from Clyne’s his inclusion here is pertinent. Just a few short seasons ago the majority view was that both players would form half of an international defence for the foreseeable future. Now they are cast into the international wilderness.
How quickly fortunes change in football and how swiftly do reputations dwindle.