'If I can... just... get...the... *TWANG*'
Much like being on a night out with Magic Spongers, the prevailing attitude towards the third round of the Carling Cup among the so-called ‘big clubs’ often appears to be sniffy indifference; something to be endured and survived with as little serious investment of energy as possible. In the last few years, certainly, this has meant throwing bit-part and reserve players into the mix and tailoring a post-match response around how much potential they’ve got or how it was good experience but priorities lie elsewhere, really. ‘No disrespect to the lads that have come in’, one might say, completely disrespecting the lads that have come in.
Recent tradition then is for the matches to be billed as Premier League starlets against usually ‘plucky’ lower-league opposition, a sort of rubbish nursery version of the FA Cup, without the romance, excitement or interest. I don’t really know why this is, though we are still in that bizarre hinterland in which every evening game that kicks off in daylight or sunshine has the feeling of a pre-season friendly. However, this week, rather than the emergence of a particular one to watch or a huge upset (though special mention to Aldershot here, winners over Rochdale), it was a tale of the old guard rather than the new.
Particularly, it was the England old guard who stole the headlines. Michael Owen and Owen Hargreaves shone, while Steven Gerrard began his on-field rehabilitation and Frank Lampard... well, sat on the bench. But even Wayne Bridge played. Wayne Bridge! In a game of football!
Owen, of course, scored twice for United. Hargreaves scored on his debut and lasted 57 minutes for City. Gerrard, it has been said, was afforded an ovation by both sets of supporters when taking the field against Brighton – proving once and for all that the English a) love a good comeback story and b) afford plenty of respect to the game’s elder statesmen, then afford them plenty of platitudes for their appropriately regal appearances (see: David Beckham).
Of all those English players towards whose backs time’s winged chariot hurries ever nearer, Hargreaves is the one from whom we have seen the least, though he potentially offered (or indeed offers) the most. While Owen and Gerrard have had injury problems too, the dynamism is dwindling.
Not that this stops the outpouring of goodwill. A case is being made for Owen’s return to the England squad (see this Telegraph poll), quite ludicrously, while all the noises coming out of Anfield recently have been in relation to Gerrard’s return (see Dalglish salivating about his ‘talisman’). The truth of the matter is that neither of them will likely feature in the Premier League this weekend. Hargreaves too is back in cotton wool for the time being.
Presumably all three would rather be among the club personnel not required for nights in the Carling Cup. Gerrard is expected to return to first team action soon enough, but for Hargreaves and Owen this might be as good as it gets now. And like an ugly bloke getting some attention from a nice girl, they appear to be quietly grateful. They might have stolen the headlines, but there are many who would not be satiated by a stolen night in September. The two are a particularly rare breed – footballers content with their (significantly reduced) lot.
What makes the situation of the two Owens unique is that they have 131 England caps between them and yet despite neither being first choice at their club, not a mumble of discontent has passed either’s lips. When you contrast this with the prima donna behaviour that has become the rule rather than the exception in the Premier League, both men should be applauded. Indeed, part of their role at their new clubs is to set an example to be followed, a very noble pursuit football is increasingly offering to its ‘elder statesmen’. For all the speculation, abuse, salacious comment – you name it – when they were players, football (and sport in general) allows its former employees to grow old particularly gracefully.
Beckham, of course, perches on the throne of this particular conceit, furthering English football’s cause abroad presumably by looking gorgeous in a suit. But that aside, he could play. And we forget this sometimes. And so too could Michael Owen and Owen Hargreaves. And Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. So despite the repeated calls of ‘change the record’ when these players hit the headlines, they patently hit the headlines for a reason. Their elder statesman tag is something earned through performing consistently well at the highest level throughout the previous 10 years and once acquired becomes a sort of passport (rightly or wrongly) to punditry/coaching/management, delete as applicable.
And you know the ones who are going to always be there throughout our lives too, like Transfer deadline day fervour or Iain Dowie. Basically the bulwark of the elder statesmen will be drawn from the ‘Golden Generation’…. Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard, Terry, Cashley, Neville G, Owen… and then throw in the likes of David James, Jamie Carragher, Joey Barton for good measure. The ones we hate from the above list, and there are standout candidates there, will grow on us. We won’t like this one bit but it will happen.
With every smile at a Gary Neville observation on Super Sunday, our hatred will dissipate, When Frank Lampard says something genuinely quite witty during the Manchester derby in 2019, we’ll turn to our young offspring and say: “You’re too young to remember the ‘one sits, one goes’ fiasco, but it was brilliant drama.” And from the resultant blank look flashed back from the little ‘un, we’ll find ourselves engulfed in memories of Beckham’s red card in ’98, the injury time madness of United v Bayern Munich in ’99, Istanbul ’05, the ‘Wally with the brolly’…
So when we see the emergence of Phil Jones at the heart of the Manchester United defence, people of a certain age (our age - 28) will see Lauren Blanc or Matthias Sammer gliding nonchalantly through midfield. Those slightly older will see Franco Baresi and those older still will see Franz Beckenbaur or Ruud Krol. And of course, the youngsters will see just Phil Jones. And if Jones fulfils his potential as a United and England regular, his place in the canon will be just as secure as his predecessors. After all, for every Shakespeare, Eyre and Bronte there will be a Lampard, Owen and Neville.