Fortune must smile on those with only memories

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The Independent Online

Every so often information comes to light about outstanding footballers from past eras who sadly have fallen on hard times, struggling to make ends meet, left with nothing to fall back on but their memories. Probably, what they remember most is the day when reality came upon them.

Every so often information comes to light about outstanding footballers from past eras who sadly have fallen on hard times, struggling to make ends meet, left with nothing to fall back on but their memories. Probably, what they remember most is the day when reality came upon them.

They were still well-conditioned, in the main black-haired, every movement they made still suggested physical strength. Most would have called them young men. But because they were athletes, their time was closing down. They had won premature fame in their twenties, and now, 10 years later, were paying with a kind of senility. The adulation was ending.

In the usual curve of ascendancy, men in other fields spend 15 years climbing a corporate ladder. If they are good, fortunate and agile, they will be soaring by 40. Footballers follow wholly different patterns. They soar almost with puberty.

Life for a potentially terrific young footballer is different from other children's lives, even as barely a teenager. Already he is the best player of his age for many miles around and coveted by professional clubs. With enough technical development, nutrition, mental toughness and motivation he will feel his life expanding.

As they grow older and recognise that the universe is larger than a playing field, it may become increasingly difficult for intelligent, curious footballers to shut out everything else and play a boy's game. It also hurts more. The human body was not designed to play for almost 12 months of the year.

Across the past decade big-time sport has become an explosive growth industry. The enormous salaries now paid to an élite group of footballers are central to coverage of the game.

That does not mean simply, as some journalists suggest, that all rich footballers become complacent. It does mean that many work longer and harder and so may wear out sooner.

Doubtless, this what Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, had in mind this week when speaking out against a proposal, submitted by the Sports Minister, Richard Caborn, that would would impose a wage ceiling on the present system of tax-free testimonials. Short career was the short answer contained in Taylor's vigorous defence of his highest-paid members. In the main, I believe that this is, with one big reservation, fair enough.

On appointment, Taylor could not have imagined a day when the wages of an élite corps in English football would soar beyond what people are paid for running countries, the richer growing richer with each new contract. By now we are almost inured to the amount of money swimming around in the Premiership. But we have been shaken by another stunner. From his testimonial match against Celtic last night, the Manchester United and Welsh international winger Ryan Giggs – after emollient contributions to local charities – will make more than £1m tax-free. Since Giggs does not have to worry where his next million is coming from, no wonder Caborn is getting uppity.

There is a healthier side to this sort of thing, one I intend to go over in some detail. Next Wednesday evening Tottenham Hotspur are playing Fiorentina in a testimonial for their former manager Bill Nicholson, who master-minded the 1961 Double and other triumphs while demanding a level of entertainment not since seen at White Hart Lane.

Nobody to my mind, not even Matt Busby, has ever given more to one club or come up closer to the conclusion that loyalty is what they screw you with. More than 20 years ago, growing weary, Nicholson had a plan for the future of Tottenham that might have surmounted the many difficulties they been through. Under his supervision, he wanted Danny Blanchflower to manage the club and bring in the Leeds United general John Giles as player-coach. They didn't listen to him.

Poorly paid by today's standards, Nicholson still lives in the house, less than a half a mile from White Hart Lane, he bought as a young professional player who joined the club from Scarborough as a 16-year-old in 1936. As manager, he was always first in and last out, often going around switching off the lights.

The Tottenham hero Dave Mackay ranks Nicholson at least equal with such notable contemporaries as Busby, Bill Shankly and Jock Stein. "Bill was hard to please but never lost his cool," Mackay said. "He never complicated things and winning wasn't enough. He never let us forget that the public came to be entertained."'

Who better deserves a testimonial? A Welsh millionaire in his twenties or an old man who can remember when life was considered to be less trivial than a ball game.

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