Not so long ago – certainly not so many years ago that it can now be dismissed as another sporting age – I did a bit of travelling around North America with an ice hockey team.
Not so long ago – certainly not so many years ago that it can now be dismissed as another sporting age – I did a bit of travelling around North America with an ice hockey team. It was a fairly punishing schedule. If it was Tuesday it was Bloomington, Minnesota, and the North Stars, and tomorrow might be Denver and the Rockies or Calgary and the Flames, and by the weekend, who knew, it could be Madison Square Garden for the Rangers or Uniondale and the Islanders.
Life was the Holiday Inn, the rink and the airport. Quite often the players fastened their seatbelts and went instantly to sleep. You could walk down the plane and see whole rows of them slumped back in the land of dreams.
You never heard a grumble when they shuffled off the flight, rheumy-eyed.
So, perhaps naturally, I thought of them again this week when Patrick Vieira of Arsenal, who earns around £60,000 a week, moaned to L'Equipe that he was in desperate need of a rest and that his Arsenal boss, Arsène Wenger, who plucked him out the shadows of the Milan reserve team and moulded him into arguably the world's best midfielder, had better do something about it.
Wenger's response was remarkable in that normally he defends the foibles of his players with some ferocity. On this occasion he simply said that Vieira had a job to do and he should get on with it.
In the last three and a half months Vieira has played nine competitive matches – four were for France, and not one of them saw more than a glimpse of his true power and authority, and five were for Arsenal, who have been proving so much superior to most of their opposition that, if his need for rest was so great, Vieira might have popped to the dressing room for a sit-down and a cup of tea without anyone noticing.
Other points of comparison: Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles played more than 60 games on their way to helping England win the 1966 World Cup, most of them on English pitches which from November on resembled ploughed fields. Neither of them cleared more than £100 a week. In 1970 Leeds United were required to play three FA Cup semi-finals, against Manchester United, two European Cup semi-finals, against Celtic, and two Cup finals, against Chelsea. In one period of 10 days Leeds were obliged to play seven matches. Their manager, Don Revie, protested to the authorities but they told him, even more bluntly than Wenger told Vieira and with rather less reason for disdain, that his players just had to do what they had to do.
Vieira's bleatings sent shock waves through the older spirits of his game yesterday. George Cohen, England's right-back in the World Cup win, said: "If and when Patrick takes his rest, will he hand back his wages?" John Giles, who was involved in that particular Leeds marathon and rarely played less than 60 games a season in his 20-year professional career, was even more scathing. "Vieira has the rest of his life to sit on his backside with the money he is earning now. Fighters fight and footballers play football – it's what they do and what they are paid for. The timing of Vieira's statement is unbelievable. He talks about the risk of injuries. That's always there. You don't get too much time to play football, your career seems to be over almost before it has begun, and really Vieira's remarks are astonishing. You hear them and you think of all the good, talented lads who played so long without bitching and you really feel like being sick. He said that he felt tired after a game this week. There would be a problem if he hadn't felt tired. That's how a player is supposed to feel after playing. You look at his career, playing with a top team, playing with France in the World Cup and you have to think he should really be down on his knees, thanking God."
In isolation Vieira's statement is shocking in what it says about his fragile state of mind. But when you put it into the pattern of his career you surely see something else. You see a still young player who has come to see the game in which he has grown so rich entirely on his own terms.
You see a magnificently gifted player who on far too many occasions over the last year or so has settled for something rather less. Before the opening of the World Cup a few months ago he spoke emotionally of his pride in representing the world champions as they took on the land of his birth, Senegal. He said he heard the drumbeats of history but when the match was over and France were defeated and heading for World Cup oblivion it was not easy to recall Vieira's contribution. He had failed to summon more than a fraction of his powers.
There is an image of Vieira that is becoming characteristic. It is of his hands up in the air and his face registering disbelief when he is awarded a yellow card, however blatant his foul. From the moment of his arrival here he has shown his willingness to dish it out. But taking it is a rather different matter. At one point Wenger warned that if English football was not careful Vieira and his World Cup team-mate Emmanuel Petit would pack their bags and leave.
Vieira appears to have become rooted in such a state of incipient umbrage, and now he talks of needing a break before the new season is properly bedded down.
Of those ice hockey pros, the most voluble was a tough, stick-wielding, punch-throwing son of the Saskatchewan prairie named Tiger Williams. He once told a young opponent who was from his own necks of the woods that he knew where his family lived and if he played well their grain fields would be burned in the night. He was the author of a famous put-down of soft-centred Swedish imports to the North American game. He said they were like bananas in that they came in green, turned yellow, and then went bad.
No one need fear a yellowish tinge coming to Patrick Vieira's game but he is in danger of earning membership of another section of humanity much despised by Williams. His word for a player who could not really be counted upon when the team got to the rink after a journey of a thousand miles or more, a player who complained about the tribulations of the professional life, was "floater."
Floaters came and went at the most inappropriate moments. For "floaters" nothing was quite right. The extravagantly paid, widely acclaimed Vieira may not yet be a fully paid-up member of the club but this week it looked awfully like his application was finally in the post.Reuse content