James Lawton: Spectacle of Ginola is never quite in focus

Nine times out of 10, he has to perform great natural skills just to get into a starting position that great players make for themselves by instinct
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The Independent Football

Some of us will take a lot of convincing that John Gregory "destroyed and humiliated" David Ginola during the player's unhappy sojourn at Villa Park. This scepticism in response to the player's anguished recollections was rather reinforced on Sunday by the sight of him performing for his new club, Everton. As my wife said with a slight but still disturbing catch in her voice, he looked about as beaten-down as Adonis strolling into a singles bar.

What happened at Villa seemed pretty straightforward. Gregory had Ginola imposed upon him as one of chairman Doug Ellis's plays to the gallery. Ginola was a cut-price celebrity picked up to appease the peasants. If they couldn't have the bread of nutritious team-building, they could have a slice of cake.

Gregory had two decent choices. He could tell Ellis what to do with his initiative and walk away. Or he could treat the player with respect while trying to exploit the residue of his talent. Instead, he chose a third course. It involved a dismissively casual use of Ginola while peppering him with cheap shots.

It never looked liked working, and it is hard not to sympathise with some of the Frenchman's complaints. He hated the sneers about carrying "baggage" and the more or less permanent cold shoulder. If Gregory considered him superfluous to his needs, and that was the relentless message he sent out, there was still scope for a dignified handling of the situation.

There will, though, always be a complication in the relationship between a manager and a player. It is the huge regard such a performer builds for himself on the terraces. A Ginola offers colour and romance and spectacle. These are all important aspects of the professional game, but when Ginola claims to be the last "of the great entertainers" he misses an important point. Gregory's preoccupation – as was that of Ginola's boss at Tottenham, George Graham – was not with side-shows but the progress of a winning team.

There was a big difference, however, between the approaches of Gregory and Graham. The latter was quick to say that the player carried himself impeccably, worked in training and off the field never gave him reason to complain. The problem was on the field, where Ginola could no more satisfy Graham professionally than a busker might Sir Thomas Beecham.

Ginola, like another supremely gifted player who was also a misfit on the international stage, Matt Le Tissier, has proved capable of superior vaudeville. But consistent, relevant performance? The verdict has to be no, a reality scarcely grazed by the mind-numbing fact that a few years ago both the football writers and the players elected him Player of the Year. How did that happen? It was the purest whimsy.

God save us, no doubt, from a world without whimsy, but in the imperatives of any competitive business, it has to be a matter of degree.

Ginola's basic problem, one that cut dead his international career with France eight years ago, is that his beautiful touch is unsupported by a proper positional sense. Almost invariably he is ahead of the ball. Nine times out of 10, it seems, he has to perform great natural skills just to get into a starting position that great players make for themselves by instinct. A useful comparison can be made with Ginola's new team-mate Paul Gascoigne. Even with the etiolation brought by the years of waste, Gazza's sense of position is still pretty much at genius level. It is something that is hard to learn, and probably impossible at Ginola's stage of development.

So why would a knowing old pro like Walter Smith attempt to rescue Ginola's career as he has Gascoigne's? Because in his position, Smith will take what he can. He will mix and match and tinker as best he can. Ginola came to Goodison Park on a free, and if he has technical deficiencies he also has a God-like demeanour, some extraordinary basic talent and, when he isn't being pressed into a demeaning corner, a notably agreeable disposition.

Smith, be sure, will get something out of Ginola. He will coax his spirit, respect his pride. Gregory baldly dismissed such requirements.

With luck, Ginola will help Everton out of trouble. What he will never be able to do, you have to suspect, is contradict the assessment of Graham and Gregory that he was not likely to do a lot for the development of a seriously ambitious team. Also beyond him is any serious blurring of the line between a great entertainer and a great player. At least this must be the position held to by anyone who has been fortunate enough to see a fair measure of great players. Pele, Di Stefano, Maradona, Cruyff, and, when his head was on securely, Best never sought to provide great entertainment. If the simple option was on they would take it. Skill was applied not as a luxury but a component of a game which inevitably produced moments when only the highest quality of play could produce the desired result.

We all have our favourite moments of football entertainment. Bruising though it was to the English psyche, Maradona's decisive goal in the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City was probably the most stunning passage of play. It was complete and consuming, and it came from somebody who was at the heart of the game. That's a place, sadly, where David Ginola is never likely to be.