Sometimes you get told a story that resonates with you so deeply that the meaning of the tale totally overwhelms the details. As a result the unluckiest player I can think of is a player whose name I don’t now know and a player I’d seriously doubt anyone will now be able to identify or recall having seen. It is almost as if he never really existed at all.
His story was told to me by a great, but sadly now little remembered football man called Tony Collins, best known as Don Revie’s chief scout for Leeds and England, a man that was left in place to smooth the waters for Brian Clough at Elland Road and later worked initially for Sir Alex when he first went to Old Trafford.
Tony, who’d overseen a fantastic roster of star player transfers at Elland Road thanks largely to the great Scottish scout John Barr, regularly watched the forgotten player in question as an Arsenal youth teamer in the early 1970s but once Don Revie became England boss in 1974 Tony then switched his attention to looking at international players and England’s future opponents.
The scout described seeing a modern-looking, I assume Gascoigne like midfielder with the world at his feet. A boy, possibly a Scot, perhaps with the surname Dick, though I can find no record of any player fitting the bill.
Collins went off to work for England, a role where he watched the likes of a young Maradona and many of the stars of the late 70s and 80s emerging abroad. For a whole year he saw nothing at all within the key youth tournaments and in international games to alter his impression that this Arsenal player really was the coming man, the future. The only proviso being that he should maintain the previous trajectory of his development. Then the world would be his oyster.
After a year had passed Tony Collins found himself in London and he jumped at the chance to see how his great white hope was shaping up as fate and the fixture list magically aligned.
Nearly 40 years on, he told the story back in the moment, recalling his anticipation for seeing a two-footed player with effortless pinpoint passing short and long, a shot like a laser, the ability to glide past opponents with a change of pace or a dropped shoulder and the mental strength to read and control games like an international number 10.
But, even before he’d reached his seat Collins knew something was wrong. In the cruellest joke of biology imaginable the player’s genetic inheritance meant that the robust, athletic physique of all previous viewings was now clearly augmented by a giant backside out of all proportion to the player’s height and build.
The effect was like transposing a racing thoroughbred into the body of a pantomime horse. If the warm-up had sent alarm bells ringing the opening exchanges confirmed the worst. By his telling Tony Collins barely lasted 20 minutes at the game. Clearly, for this poor soul, the mind was willing but the flesh was unable to bend to its will.
A formerly deadly, arced long pass evaded everyone and fizzled out tamely beyond the touchline, twice the player was pinched in possession by challenges he’d have barely registered a year before.
Finally, he played a short pass into midfield in the centre circle and moved to receive his return from a teammate. But once where he’d have effortlessly glided into a position to regain possession, he now waddled two or three steps and crashed to the ground, banging the turf in despair in an act of symbolism every seasoned watcher in the near empty ground immediately understood.
There was to be no happy ending, no thrilling fulfilment of potential for this player who had lost the ability to run and could no longer get about the park as he’d done without thinking just a few months before.
Whether true or not, my sense is that the player left the action inconsolable minutes later. Never to be seen again.
The tragedy of the story, for anyone that watches football seriously, is not confined to those names and dates I can no longer recall but rather that it is a story played out every season at all levels of the game. As such it is a story that is depressingly familiar and framed by small details.
Would Eddie Gray really have been world class as predicted had he not picked up that injury that never healed? What really happened to young Sonny Pike at Ajax and all those now lower league journeymen who appeared to have had it all to play for just a decade ago?
The likes of Platini, Ballack and even Abou Diaby who fail to add a missing bauble to their medal collection or see their careers blighted by injuries belong to another subset. They are really not so unlucky in the scheme of things.
The players you have to feel for are the forgotten ones, the players who for whatever reason are never quite good enough – often through no fault of their own.
Greg Gordon is a scout and journalist whose work has appeared in The FT, The Observer, The Sunday Times and many other leading publications over the last 20 years. Greg writes and has written next opponent and player reports for Scottish league clubs for over a decade.
This story originally appeared as part of the Modern Studies project at www.6876.com