Once upon a time in the 1990s, I had the misfortune to play in a charity match against the all-conquering Shamrock Rovers team of the 1960s. Three decades after they'd dominated Irish soccer, the Rovers' old boys togged out for a good cause. As they walked onto the field that night in Home Farm, I marveled at the duplex beer bellies a few of them were carrying and wondered whether we'd have to take it easy on them. Ninety minutes later, I walked off after the most frustrating and least enjoyable match of my life. Soccer is no fun when the other team is so good at keeping the ball that you can never get it off them.
That was one of those occasions which hammered home a very salient point about the game. You can tell when somebody has played at the highest level because of the amount of time they have in possession and the superior quality of their first touch. Long after their heyday, the Rovers' icons were able to make a team of 20-somethings look and feel like idiots. They barely broke into a sweat because they were able to control the ball with such ease and always knew where a teammate would be to receive a pass. That memorable night came to mind on several occasions during the past couple of weeks with regard to Darron Gibson.
I first thought back to that embarrassing evening when Rory McIlroy used his Twitter account to openly castigate Gibson's presence in the United midfield. Then, I had another flashback during last week's farce where the Irish international had to shut down his own Twitter account just two hours after opening it, in the face of streams of vitriolic tweets from fans of his own club. Now, as somebody who believes Gibson is not now good enough or never will be good enough to start regularly for United, here's what I found shocking.
The criticism of Gibson seems informed by this erroneous belief that, aside from being not up to scratch for Old Trafford, he's not actually very good at soccer at all. Everybody is entitled to their opinion but this kind of ignores the facts of his career. Think about how good he had to be to get from Derry to Manchester in the first place. Think of how much he must have impressed the United scout who spotted him playing in the 2002 Milk Cup for that man to then get on the phone to his bosses at Carrington and make a recommendation. Thousands of kids played in that year's Milk Cup but United wanted him. Doesn't that tell us something?
Think about what happened next. He flew to Manchester for a trial. You know how many teenage boys get trials every year? You know what percentage get offered a second trial after that? You know how many then get brought into the office with their parents and offered an apprenticeship and some sort of a contract? At every one of those steps, Gibson was better than the best that United had invited in for a look-see. And this, remember, is a club which isn't exactly slack in the scouting department, an outfit that brings in teenagers from all over the planet in their search for players.
It doesn't end there. Plenty of bright young things from Ireland and elsewhere have landed contracts at United over the years and the vast majority of them never came within a sniff of first team action. Gibson had to negotiate his way through the academy, the youth team, and the reserves, moving through each grade every year at the same time that so many of his peers were brought in by the bosses and told their time in the dream factory had expired. How good must he have played week in week out on the way up to see off all the other youngsters desperately trying to clamber up the ladder?
When we watch elite sport we too easily forget how good the practitioners are at what they do. The fact they occasionally makes mistakes or under-perform leads us to make ridiculously rash judgments. At championship matches over the next few months, men who haven't broken into a sweat for decades will deride and criticize those wearing their county colors and call into question their abilities. Every time they do they will conveniently forget how many hurdles the individuals involved had to sacrifice to get onto that field, how many judges of talent they had to convince of their merits along the way to playing in a Munster hurling final or Ulster football final or whatever.
The above riff may sound familiar because it is inspired by an oft-quoted passage in Nick Hornby's book "Fever Pitch" that dealt with the strange case and career of a bit-part Arsenal defender from the 1980s named Gus Caesar. Hornby pointed out that having been the best player on every team he ever played for growing up, Caesar played 50 times for Arsenal but was just that little bit short on the quality required for the highest level.
"To get where he did," wrote Hornby. "Gus Caesar clearly had more talent than nearly everyone of his generation (the rest of us can only dream about having his kind of skill) and it still wasn't quite enough."
There is something else we forget too when we lambaste players in every code. Those of us who weren't good enough to progress to the top don't know what it's like to play in front of 50,000 or 70,000 people. Can you imagine the pressure of that? Can you picture yourself coping with the atmosphere and the noise? It's not as easy as some of them make it look. That is why only the best of the best ever get to play in Old Trafford or Croke Park or the Aviva Stadium. Gibson isn't as good as United may have hoped he'd be but he's a lot better than those who are mocking him now.