The Pole Between the Posts

Tim Stillman column Arseblog

Now comfortably into my 30s, I like to think I grew out of having favourite players some time ago. That’s not down to a schooled cynicism about “the modern game,” I just think that, as you get older, you ought to have a heightened appreciation for the collective over the individual. You also become more understanding about the transient nature of life, work, and indeed, football.

A friend of mine has a good analogy for the relationship between supporters and players. As a supporter, you are on a train journey from taxi to destination. Players are the passengers that board and alight between stops. Each passenger makes a different impact on the pleasantness (or otherwise) of your journey.

Whenever I am asked to name my favourite ever Arsenal player, I always say Anders Limpar. He is not the best Arsenal player I have ever seen, but he was my favourite when I was at primary school. That means he will be my favourite forever. As a child, when your interest in your team is flowering, individuals are more important, more prominent. They begin to stitch together the identity of your club.

Like all significant rites of passage, those forged in childhood have a more profound impact on your psyche. As one gets older, your imagining of your club is stable and your understanding of the collective enhances, so you are less impressed by single players. You will develop a fondness for some, no doubt. This is pretty natural.

I adored Bacary Sagna and still do. Alex Hleb is one of my more divisive favourites. I entirely understand why he frustrated Arsenal fans and, even if I think some of his subtler gifts went underappreciated, I don’t necessarily disagree with those he angered. But I just really enjoyed watching him play on an aesthetic level.

I stopped trying to debate how effective he actually was towards the end of his time at the club. I realised that enjoying his skills on a very basic level was enough, how useful or productive his skills were mattered to me less. In that respect, Hleb was a rare example of a player I liked separately to his contribution to the collective.

I have another friend that wanted Arsenal to sign Marouane Fellaini in 2013. I scoffed and suggested that the player was wildly inconsistent and flitted too easily between effectiveness and rank incompetence. Plus, he is a walking red card, I argued. “That’s exactly why I would like us to sign him,” was the response. “He’s great fun to watch. He guarantees entertainment.”

It’s a view I had a certain amount of sympathy with. In lieu of being a completely elite club expected to win absolutely everything in every season, having the odd ‘wild card’ player actually adds another dimension to one’s enjoyment. Jens Lehmann is remembered incredibly fondly by Arsenal fans and it’s not just because he was a good goalkeeper.

Characters that fans relate to are important- even as football becomes increasingly unsentimental. In fact, I have been toying with writing an article over the summer on whether football is even meant to be fun any longer. My plan was to frame the question against the backdrop of increased calls for technology to assist refereeing decisions.

In truth, I shelved the idea. I anticipated the level of debate and maybe even outrage such a piece might cause and hesitated. Eventually I decided that feeling pre-emptively weary of the fallout was answer enough for the question I had set myself.

Forging the occasional emotional connection with a player, for reasons of heart, provides a comforting splash of bourbon to an increasingly sober footballing landscape. It brings an amber glow to a cold hearted game. So it has been with a dash of sadness that I have followed Wojciech Szczesny’s transfer to Juventus. Szczesny is unashamedly a player that I took to my heart.

This article is not really about his effectiveness, or even whether it was a good decision to sell him. I understand why his skills divide opinion and I don’t demand that the Arsenal manager agrees with me on every call he makes. It’s far better that he doesn’t. I also acknowledge that I don’t have all of the available information regarding their relationship.

It’s not Arsene Wenger’s responsibility to build a team of players that I would like to have a pint with. If the relationship between the manager and the player is irreparable in this scenario, I accept his call. (I’m sure Arsene will be relieved to hear that).

I’m not really a sports fan, overall. I don’t watch other sports and I have come to realise that my enjoyment of football is not really built on a sporting or athletic appreciation. Music, reading and writing are my biggest passions after football. I view the sport much more through that prism, almost as an art form, maybe something closer to rock ‘n’ roll.

That’s why I responded to Szczesny. (Full disclosure, I liked Nicklas Bendtner too and, whisper it quietly, I even liked William Gallas. Bendtner and Gallas could be described as possessing ‘artistic temperaments’ if one is to term it generously). Wojciech’s cockiness struck a cord with me, but I think he underpinned it with a measure of self-deprecation too.

After his Premier League debut, he tweeted, “Tomorrow I will try to learn how to kick the ball past the half way line!” after a series of scuffed clearances. During an U-18s game in 2009, there is a story that Szczesny spotted the linesman checking the nets as he walked towards his goal. “No need to bother,” he chirped to the beleaguered official. “Nothing is going in there.” He duly kept a clean sheet.

There is a delicate balance between endearing cheekiness and being a dick (I am looking at you, Jimmy Bullard). Szczesny always struck that balance for me, because I got the impression that he was only being half serious, even at his most cocksure. The playful (sometimes tuneful) jibes at Tottenham’s expense were always well thought out and pretty funny.

I think he judged the rivalry between the clubs perfectly, as a vehicle for piss taking rather than venom. Every missive was delivered with a cocky smile rather than a contemptuous sneer, which is how it should be really. The wink and toothy grin after taking out Gareth Bale with his face springs instantly to mind.

That’s why I think I warmed to him so much, he seemed to have a genuine affection for Arsenal. His interviews were always honest and sharply framed. He has a rock ‘n’ roller’s gift for delivering anecdotes with the right measure of confidence and circumspection- a guy who is assured, but doesn’t take himself too seriously. Ultimately, the latter attribute may have cost him his career at Arsenal. Elite sports and gaiety are not necessarily great bedfellows.

I have also always preferred brave goalkeepers that make assertive decisions. I appreciate a goalkeeper that takes risks. It suggests character to me because a goalkeeper that hides on his goalline will seldom take the blame for a concession. (SHAY GIVEN). The guy that is brave will make the odd notable error, but he will save you more goals in the long run.

David Seaman’s habit for taking half a step off of his line cost him some high profile embarrassments, but he collected a thousand crosses and prevented countless goals in a way that was far less noticeable as a result. That is the lot of the goalkeeper, if you do the job properly, your biggest victories are imperceptible and your occasional errors are luminous.

Anders Limpar was my favourite Arsenal player when I was at primary school because of his imperfections. He wore his shirt outside his shorts, his socks down, he rarely tracked back and he swaggered rather than ran. Graham’s early Arsenal sides were a good deal more exciting than people remember and their drinking habits would have shamed the touring habits of the average folk band.

But Limpar offered a striking antidote to the more buttoned down stylings of his teammates. He was Arsenal’s foreign player in more than one sense, our answer to Keith Moon. His lack of on pitch discipline meant that his Arsenal career was short lived under Graham’s oppressive sergeant major gaze.

That merely added to Limpar’s appeal in my eyes- as a young man far more impressed by Kurt Cobain than Daley Thompson. As the old rock ‘n’ roll adage has it, the star that burns twice as bright burns for half as long. Wojciech Szczesny’s Arsenal star extinguished like a cigarette under a shower. In time, that will only add to his legend.

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