Mike Rowbottom: Up close and personal with my local hero Ginola

Click to follow

At the time of writing, I don't know which star players eventually turned out for the West Ham XI due to play up the road from me last night against Bishop's Stortford FC. If the local papers were to be believed, Woodside Park was to play host to, among others, Frédéric Kanouté and the debutant goalkeeper David James.

My immediate reaction to such reports was one of scepticism. Oh yes. David James. Of course he'll want to start his West Ham career at Bishop's Stortford – after all, it's a tradition, isn't it?

But then I remembered 1999. Which, for the benefit of anyone who may not happen to live within 10 miles of me, was The Year David Ginola Came To Bishop's Stortford.

Tottenham's pre-season friendly here also involved an XI, rather than the 11, but when the Cockerels strutted out for their practice match they included among their number a far greater proportion of first-teamers than any of the 2,000 or so crowd could reasonably have expected. The team check in the programme had an optimistic feel about it. ''The above players,'' it read, ''are just a selection of the squad Spurs are expected to pick tonight's side from. Hopefully, we'll also see appearances from the likes of David Ginola."

On this occasion the programme did not lie. There were indeed appearances from the likes of David Ginola, in the form of that tricksy pair, Jose Dominguez and Ruel Fox. But even better for the assembled crowd of curious schoolchildren and mums with a glint in their eye was the fact that Ginola himself was present. In person. Actually there. With his hair. And his teeth. And his thighs. And...

The pitch was heavy, and the home players, naturally enough, were desperate to make 3 September, 1999 The Day I Tackled Ginola. For each of them, however, September 3, 1999 became instead The Day I Nearly Tackled Ginola, or The Day I Let Ginola Take Me Out Of The Game With One Pass.

The Frenchman had no need to over-extend himself as he swept the ball around Woodside Park, and he didn't. In truth, all Ginola had to do that evening was be Ginola. That, and to sign the bundles of autographs that came in from all directions once he had taken an early leave of the game.

Nearly two years on, some of the mums who attended that match still go misty-eyed at the recollection of the man whose rumoured participation had drawn them to the unfamiliar location on the edge of the M11.

But whether it was for the quality of his passing, or other less sports-related factors, Ginola made an impact upon this medium-sized Hertfordshire town that was very personal.

Of course we had all seen him on the telly, either on the pitch or the pundits panel. We'd seen him in the L'Oreal advertisements. We'd seen him in the papers. But there was something altogether different about watching this sublime performer operating in such humdrum surrounds – playing to the cheers of children and the background murmur of cars heading for London or Cambridge, in a little ground where planes heading into Stansted Airport droned and dipped behind the main stand, startlingly big. The ordinariness of the surroundings, so far removed from his then normal theatre of operations at White Hart Lane, seemed only to magnify the non-ordinary nature of the Frenchman. I'd seen him at Spurs. But I felt far more excited to see him half a mile from my home.

It has been depressing to witness the way Ginola has been treated since that autumn evening. Even though Tottenham were the proud – not to say relieved – holders of the Worthington Cup at that time, a victorious campaign that owed much to the Frenchman's inspirational contributions, his relationship with the club's then manager, George Graham, was a dead one. One of the more amusing elements in reporting on Spurs during those days was seeing how far Graham could develop the managerial art of damning with faint praise when he was asked to comment on Ginola.

After Graham had unloaded him unceremoniously to Aston Villa, Ginola's treatment at the hands of his next manager, John Gregory, was less subtle.

The impression given now is that the Frenchman has adopted a fatalistic approach to the business of being a footballer in England. If he is to be mistreated and misunderstood, so be it...

When Ginola finally decides to call it un jour, he may not be able to gaze at a cabinet full of winners' medals. But he will leave behind him something that cannot be bounded in wood and glass. Something that has been given.

Comments