Past tense, future perfect?
Picture the scene. You are watching your favourite Seventies band, looking forward to a night of nostalgia. Four songs in, the leading singer puts down his guitar and engages with the audience. The repartee is good. You laugh, even though there is nothing to laugh at, but you feel good because everybody else is laughing.
Then the singer proclaims the dreaded sentence: This next song is from our latest album.
If you cannot hear the collective groan, you can certainly feel it. People look at each other and frown. Hearts sink. People want refunds. You have come for the greatest hits - and the legend at the front wants to promote his new stuff. He is no longer a legend but merely a marketing man, peddling his latest CD (cash only, please).
Nobody says it but everybody knows it: past and present do not mix.
It is the same in football. Go to a testimonial and cringe as players of yesterday try to mix it with the players of the today. It does not work, because it is against nature. It reminds you of the Samuel Johnson quotation about female preaching being like a dog walking on hind legs. “It is not done well,” he said. “But you are surprised to find it done at all”.
Ah, but there are blurred distinctions about what constitutes past and present. Many people who saw Ryan Giggs play for Manchester United against Tottenham Hotspur last Saturday were convinced that they were watching an apparition, a ghostly figure from a previous generation who had no business being in the Premier League, circa 2012. Sir Alex Ferguson disagrees and, for now, his opinion carries enough weight to neuter the emergent protests. But be sure of one thing: Giggs is nearing the end of his splendid career because his Now has nothing in common with his Then. The glory of his past will not insulate him from the insecurity of his present.
With Paul Scholes, it is different. His re-emergence from retirement last season coincided with, and probably caused, a Manchester United revival, and the team came to within a minute of landing a twentieth Premier League title. Scholes’ game does not require lightening bursts down the left flank, à la Giggs. It requires composure; it requires dictating the pace of play. Scholes does most of his work with his brain, so for him the past is his present. This is not the merger of two eras. This is the continuation of one era. The Now.
At Anfield, Liverpool are complicating the situation by merging past (Jamie Carragher), present (Steven Gerrard) and future (Raheem Sterling). Sometimes it can all look random – like a trifle from a cheap supermarket – but there are signs in the offing of something special; not of past merging with present but, rather, present merging with future.
It seems likely that the Carragher is running to stand still. He is no longer a first-team regular and all the signs are that he will begin a coaching career at Anfield within the next two years. Gerrard is probably four to five years away from the end of his playing career, which gives him the time to administer on the pitch the transformation of Sterling, Suso and others into the finished article.
If the merger of past and present does not work, the merger of present and future definitely does. Consider United during the mid-Nineties. While the first team were beginning a period of dominance in 1992-93, the club’s youth team were preparing a takeover. The likes of Scholes, Giggs, David Beckham, and Nicky Butt enjoyed playing alongside Roy Keane and Paul Ince in the first team, usually in League Cup ties at places like Port Vale.
By the time Ferguson sold Paul Ince to Internazionale in 1995, United had ready-made replacements in Scholes and Butt. “You cannot win anything with kids,” Alan Hansen said in August 1995, but those “kids” inspired United to the Premier League and FA Cup double in May 1996. Then, what had been the future in 1992 became the present in 1999 when United created the empire that landed the European Cup, Premier League and FA Cup. The careful nurturing of young talent, alongside experienced professionals, helped to create the most successful era in the club’s history.
Significantly, the United youth policy of the past decade has been far less impressive, with Ferguson likelier to buy the finished article. But there are signs of the club going back to the future. Against Newcastle United in the League Cup last week, Ferguson fielded five debutants: Marnick Vermijl, Scott Wootton, Michael Keane, Robbie Brady, and Ryan Tunnicliffe. Not all will make the grade at Old Trafford but if even one does then Ferguson will regard the experiment as successful.
At Liverpool, the emphasis on youth is now essentially club policy. Brendan Rodgers has already shown a willingness to make good use of Andre Wisdom, Suso, Jack Robinson, Sterling, and Samed Yesil, even in Premier League matches. There was also a place in a League Cup tie for Jerome Sinclair, who had only just turned 16. A lack of funds, arguably, has forced Rodgers into making the best with what he has. Expediency rather than design. But it takes a brave manager to play so many teenagers in such big matches.
The emergence of Sterling in particular has excited Liverpool supporters. This is not just a pacey winger with skill to burn, this is a player with a desire to track back and tackle. Sterling is that rare creature: the vivacious teenager with cognizance and judgement. With pace, skill and brain, he has all the attributes necessary to make the grade at international level. With Steven Gerrard alongside him, Sterling looks far more assured and intelligent in the first team than he ever did in the reserves.
The reserve team is all about the future. And when the future merges itself with the present, the results can be spectacular. In that regard, Sterling and Gerrard need each other, just as Roy Keane and Paul Scholes needed each other at Old Trafford.
At Chelsea, there are only hints of a flourishing youth policy, with Ryan Bertram emerging as a welcome contrast to the club’s obsession with buying the finished article. It is less than 18 months since Fabio Borini, the Italian striker, now performing unspectacularly at Liverpool, criticised the Chelsea academy at Cobham.
“Most of the young players at Chelsea have had to do the same thing,” Borini said in May 2011. “Scott Sinclair, who plays at Swansea now, Jack Cork, Jeffrey Bruma, Patrick van Aanholt and Michael Mancienne all went through the same thing. I would not say we share the same frustration, but we all need the same honesty. Although I am still young, I have been at Chelsea for four years now and I feel I have wasted the last six months of my career.”
Borini raises, inadvertently, an important point. The talent in the youth academy has to be of a sufficiently high standard to render as appropriate the merger of present and future. Maybe he did not make the grade with Chelsea because he was not good enough. Although he did well under Rodgers at Swansea, Borini has found himself overshadowed at Liverpool by Sterling and Suso and other teenagers.
On the other hand, when your owner has about £9billion knocking about his bank account, as is the case with Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, the youth policy does not need to succeed. It merely needs to exist. Roberto Di Matteo will not find it necessary to adopt Brendan Rodgers’ brand of pragmatism. The Chelsea manager can just make offers and get Abramovich to sign the cheques. Rodgers does not have that luxury, and so he must live in the future.
The sacking of André Villas-Boas last season proved that patience had little place at Stamford Bridge. The success of Chelsea in the European Cup final a few weeks later revealed that Abramovich was right to stop the Villas-Boas revolution in its early stages. The problem for Villas-Boas was that he seemed too eager to dispense with what he deemed to be Chelsea’s past: ie, Frank Lampard and others. Villas-Boas was ahead of his time – too far ahead, some said – but Abramovich was not ready for the future. The Chelsea owner was happy in the present, and with the present.
The triumph in Munich will ensure a new market for Chelsea nostalgia. The past will remain beautiful for as long as supporters can remember Didier Drogba’s late equaliser and, later, his penalty in the shoot-out. But Winston Churchill was right: “If we open a quarrel between past and present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”
So when your favourite band from the Seventies tries to fob you off with stuff from their latest album, remember that they are only trying to open a quarrel between past and present. And maybe that was what Sir Alex Ferguson attempted when he put Ryan Giggs into the United starting line-up against Tottenham last weekend.