James Lawton: Sorry, Rio, trophies are not the way to judge greatness - News & Comment - Football - The Independent

James Lawton: Sorry, Rio, trophies are not the way to judge greatness

Maybe, just maybe, he is the like of which we have not seen since the unforgettable George Best

It has been said once and now, God save us from the wrath of the oracle of Twitter, Rio Ferdinand, it will be said again. Gareth Bale is arguably the most exciting football player bred in these islands since George Best.

The problem with this statement, according to Ferdinand is that, no matter how tentatively, it brings the 22-year-old Welshman into comparison with his 38-year-old compatriot Ryan Giggs. There is another crushing argument against Bale's early elevation, supporters of which Ferdinand deems to be mad.

Bale, for all the acclaim he has accumulated in the power centres of European football, has yet to win a single title. This means that we cannot put a value on the qualities which Bale has so far displayed at places like San Siro until he gets to the end of his career, when we can then count out the contents of his trophy cupboard.

It is just as well this criterion has never been applied to the life of Sir Tom Finney, who in the view of some great judges and notably high achievers was perhaps the most exciting talent produced in Britain before the arrival of, er, George Best.

If Finney was judged purely on his medals, he would now be remembered as a highly respected citizen of Preston and a master plumber who also played football rather well, though sadly without the satisfaction of winning anything more than a pat on the back.

Fortunately, this did not deflect the admiration of some of the most honoured names in British football.

One assessment went like this: "To dictate the pace and course of a game a player has to be blessed with awesome qualities and those who have accomplished it on a regular basis can be counted on one hand... Pele, Maradona, Best, Di Stefano and Tom Finney." I would add the name of Johan Cruyff to the list but then I'm not Sir Stanley Matthews.

Here is another tribute to the sublime, but potless, Finney: "Tom Finney would have been great in any team, any match and in any age... even if he had been wearing an overcoat." This was said by Bill Shankly, who also responded to a question about how he would compare the fine Sheffield United and England player Tony Currie with Finney by saying, "Very favourably, but you know Tommy Finney is nearly 60."

Yes, it has to be allowed that Bale has a long course to run and, yes, too, it is true Giggs has run his magnificently, acquired a ton of silverware and this, ironically enough, after his manager Sir Alex Ferguson angrily declared that it was absurd to claim that the teenaged Giggs was the new Best.

Giggs was never going to be that. He was a marvellously fluent runner and dribbler and for most of his career would be a glorious re-statement of the value of someone with the pace and skill to create constant danger out wide.

Giggs's deeds, and his versatility, hardly need much burnishing in the memory. Some of them so are vivid they might have come yesterday, perhaps most notably the FA Cup semi-final goal against Arsenal when he ran through the entire defence and then waved his shirt in celebration. However, Giggs was three years older than Bale is today.

Who knows how many trophies and extraordinary feats Bale will have accomplished by then if, as many expect, he becomes the property of Real Madrid or Barcelona or Manchester City?

The excitement Bale has caused, and the value that has been attached to him, is evident enough by the pressure that his club Spurs are already anticipating next summer – if not in the next transfer window.

Ferdinand also says: "When I'm retired I will be judging my career on what my team won. I play to win daily. If Paul Gascoigne had been at a winning club he would have been the best player in the world."

No, he wouldn't. Gazza had a beautiful talent but he could no more handle it than he could catch the wind. He had sublime gifts. They came to him in the cradle and if they were, in their way, the most thrilling we had seen since the dispiriting early decline of the astonishing Best they were also invaded, fatally, by the rush of B-list celebrities they attracted. Does Ferdinand think that a manager who hoarded success, one like his own Ferguson, would have tolerated the indiscipline of Gazza for longer than it took him to understand that he was, tragically, incapable of holding himself together?

No one is saying that Bale is a certainty to avoid the pitfalls of injury and pressure or that there may not be weaknesses in his nature that a season as one of the most expensive players in the history of football might not explore quite seriously. No, the contention here is simply that he has already displayed a talent that is both hugely exciting and technically superb – and maybe, just maybe, the like of which we may not have seen since the unforgettable George.

If this is madness, make me a bunk in the loony bin.

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