Date: 27th January 2012 at 2:06pm
Written by:

In the more fickle and mobile surrounds of the modern game, I find I am forever trying to detach myself from footballers and I often find I encourage others to do the same. For a start, player mobility and contract law has moved to a stage whereby moving clubs regularly is very normal, even within the, ahem, “financially secure” cocoon of the top flight. Basically, they`ll only break your heart. And that`s not always their fault. Loving something or someone that could never possibly return that affection is to play with emotional fire.

In the past, I have saved my idolatry for musicians. Don`t get me wrong, I realise they`re only human as well and subject to the same flaws as all of us. In fact, they`re usually more fatally flawed. I guess therein lies some of the attraction. But the ties aren`t as tight. If The Cure write a rubbish album, I don`t have to buy it. There again, I do find myself often coming back to a quote I am fond of from a 1976 interview with Jonny Rotten. When asked who his heroes were, he pithily replied, “I don`t have any heroes. We`re all f*****g useless.”

Nevertheless, sometimes it`s difficult to stop the pull towards a player. I`m not talking about personalities per se. Role modelling men that happen to be good at kicking a ball isn`t fair on the players and it suggests a basic failure of parenting too. But sometimes, the way a player plays the game draws you towards them in a magnetic way that you realise isn`t entirely rational. I was drawn towards this piece this morning on F365. It got me wondering about players that have often caused you to suspend all logic in your appreciation of them and how they might have just ended up hurting you as a result.

The player that instantly came to my mind was Aliaksandr Hleb. In his three years at Arsenal, Hleb polarised opinion amongst Arsenal fans to say the least. I`m not at a loss as to why. Despite some of the best dribbling skills these shores have seen, he had an allergic reaction to shooting which infuriated many. I know I spent hours justifying his worth to the team. His partnership with Fabregas. How his ability to hold the ball in tight spaces enabled the fluid movement of forward runners. Hleb was one quarter of one the best Arsenal midfields Wenger has put together.

In 2007-08, the quartet of Hleb, Rosicky, Fabregas and Flamini threatened to sweep to the title. But it was a bond that was broken too soon. Rosicky`s hamstrings exploded into tiny little pieces. Flamini chased the lucre in Milan. Then there was Hleb. I can`t rationalise it, but I loved Alex Hleb. I think it was a connection to my childhood in a way. I`ve relayed many, many times that it was the dribbling skills of the likes of Limpar, Rocastle and Merson that drew me to choose the red side of the North London divide in my family.

Whisper it quietly, but were I four or five years older, then my formative years would have seen a Spurs side offering the likes of Waddle and Gascoigne, or Ardilles and Villa, it`s quite likely I`d have chosen Tottenham. Of course, assuming my inexact logic been translated in this hypothesis. But this is why I had a special affection for Hleb. He was exactly the sort of player that made me fall in love with the game in the first place.

The velvety ball control, all swivelling hips and deceptive dummies. He was the kind of player I had tried to be like in the playground. I even share his lack of killer instinct, which might explain why I have gradually moved into ever more defensive positions as I`ve gotten older. It probably explains why I was more sympathetic than I should have been when he passed up another glorious chance at goal in favour of an impossible pass. I suppose my admiration for Hleb was a kind of love, in the sense that I understand the word. In that, I often defied logic and evidence to keep him perched on that pedestal.

I think it`s much the same now when I see some of the punditry of Ian Wright and Paul Merson. Now, for a start, I don`t share this contention many seem to hold that, because they used to play for us, that they somehow should be inoculated from criticising. Their jobs are as pundits, which means they are paid to give their opinions, not further pro Arsenal propaganda. However, that is not to say that sometimes their opinions can be, shall we say, a tad ill informed. But I cannot get angry at them.

It wasn`t the personalities or the opinions I was ever interested in. Merson will always be the player that taught me how to volley a football, when he sliced a deceptive strike beyond Chris Woods, using his little toe to cut across the ball and give it its bend. Wright will always be the player that chipped Swindon keeper Fraser Digby from 40 yards and that never missed one on ones.

But Hleb disappointed me in a lot of ways. The transparent slap on Reading`s Graeme Murty that meant he missed his last three games- rather conveniently. Then there was the piss weak excuse he gave for leaving. London was too noisy. So of course he allayed this concern by moving to the tranquil backwater of Barcelona. Effectively, his departure was a slap in my eight year old face. That his career was nose dived beyond recognition ever since leaves me feeling confused. On one hand, the petty side of me feels smug and full of schaudenfreude. On the other, the contrition he has shown since in admitting his mistake makes me feel melancholic that such a talent has been wasted and with that, so was my illogical and immature affection. LD.