Search for the hero inside
With all the warm tributes that have justly flooded in for Rocky Rocastle this week I wondered a little about the way our feelings towards players fluctuates over their time with the club. Rocastle in some ways is a case in point. Along with Michael Thomas in the final years of the 80`s decade it appeared that the talent they showed would follow a linear path of increasing greatness and they would be key players for years to come. But after the triumph of `89 indifferent form, in which injuries played a part, saw Rocky play a lesser role in the subsequent season. He missed out on selection for the 1990 world cup despite being in double figures for international caps before his 23rd birthday and played a relatively minor role in the 1991 league title win. Yet he seemed to be back to his best in the following season so much so that primary school pupil Tim Stillman adopted him as his footballing idol. That tale you can read in Tim`s brilliant piece below. But, in all probability the boy Tim would have been less impressed in either of the two previous seasons. The point is that players form and performance fluctuates sometimes due to the impact of injuries and at other times as part of a natural path of development.
Watching Jack Wilshere now it`s hard to believe that there can ever be a time when his performances can be questioned. Yet history and rationality tells us that there will come a time when we`ll wonder whether he`ll completely fulfil the expectations that have rightly been raised this season. The more impact he has the more other coaches will look to find ways to restrict him, to nullify his strengths and expose whatever weaknesses he has. He`s good enough to come through any such period that may be in front of him but doubts will be raised among supporters while he comes to terms with the challenges and some will wonder whether we should trade him in for a 'proven` player. He may well move from 19 year old boy wonder to 25 year old football genius but it`s unlikely to be in a straight line from one point to the other.
Tony Adams can`t be seen as anything other than as the Arsenal hero, Mr Arsenal, he was when he left us in 2002. However, the 'donkey` tag that he earned at some points in his career wasn`t wholly unwarranted either. The key thing was that measured over the whole currency of his career with Arsenal the times when he did play like a donkey, and he did more often than some would now remember, can be put into that perspective. There are plenty of other players who looked to be heading out of the door at one point only to prove indispensable after indifferent form. At one point Andy Linighan must have looked to have been an improvement on the less than impressive Steve Bould who he was bought to replace. The threat galvanised Steve to such an extent that in the triumphant `91 league campaign the only defeat we suffered was to a goal conceded to Chelsea in the one half of that seasons league games he didn`t play having left the field due to injury. Had that not been the case maybe Graham would have produced our first 'invincibles`. Yesterdays zeros can still be tomorrow`s heroes.
Every season different players will move from the retain list to the reject bin and, if they remain, can just as easily move from reject to key player. For that reason I`m cynical about swift judgements to write off players. Some players do become irredeemable, even if Almunia has 9 miraculous games this season it won`t alter his destiny greatly, but others have still enough real ability to withstand the ebb and flow of supporters` affections.
Those on this seasons popular exit lists will find their destinies dependent on different factors. A 'proven` player like Rosicky could find his future intertwined with whatever Cesc`s destiny will be this summer. There`s only so much creative talent we can lose in one season. Others like Bendtner, who at his still tender age (van Persie had more than his share of doubters at the same stage of his Arsenal career) could still prove to be the world class striker he believes he`ll become, but may tire of trying to force his way into a team playing the role that he wants to. Diaby and Denilson are probably this season`s most prominent 'no-hopers` but look closely at what they do contribute and the reasons for that become less clear cut. They both have their weaknesses for sure but they also have some compelling strengths. Denilson`s strengths in particular are far too easily passed over. He has his weaknesses, the most prominent of which is a lack of defensive awareness, but he has more than a few strengths. While his awareness of the Arsenal players around him is more than apparent he doesn`t pick up the movement of the opposition on the edge of our own box too well. Something that he acknowledged himself that he needed to improve a while back but having only turned 23 last month those qualities are more about learned behaviour and by the time he`s 25, still relatively young in defensive terms, he`ll be better at it than he is now.
Sometimes it`s a case of fitting a player`s strengths into the team framework and its current structure. You can`t help understanding what Wenger sees in the good parts of Diaby`s game but also recognise that Arsene hasn`t found it easy to fit him into a role that maximises his strengths without compromising the strengths of others in the team. There`ll come a point when he may just have to accept that`s a conundrum he`ll not be able to solve though sometimes solutions and combinations can work more by accident than design.
Ultimately solutions to such considerations aren`t always as simple as trading one player for another which seems to be the popular perception. You can`t be sure that the talents of even 'proven' players that you may bring in will be any more compatible with those of the rest of the team to a greater extent than those that have been nurtured within the squad for a few seasons. Who knows, maybe tomorrows heroes are already here just as they have been at times in the past.