Sunday, 31 March 2013

Whatever Happens To The Heroes?

This is not about the pub in Waterlooville which some friends of mine once referred to as "a meat market". Please continue to read, thanks!

The past twelve months has been a weird time from a sporting perspective, but to understand it you have to delve back into the past a bit.

Back in 1991 I had barely supported for Palace for any time at all, but I clearly had a favourite player: Ian Wright. His enthusiasm was infectious, his speed was electrifying and he had a knack of being able to produce something special at any given moment. Unbeknown to 16 year-old me though he would shortly be sold to Arsenal for £2.5M. My first true sporting hero had gone, to a club where he would repeatedly score against us and even on one occasion relegate us. I said I would never become so attached to one player again.

However in the summer of 1997 a newly-promoted Palace side did the unthinkable. They sought and eventually succeeded in obtaining the services of Attilio Lombardo from Juventus. Lombardo then scored on his debut at Everton and shortly afterwards inspired another win at Leeds. He was a remarkably quick thinker, always a step ahead of the game and seeking to improve those around him. Add in his instantly recognisable hairstyle (or lack of it) and a unique take on the "he's got no hair" songs and you had a cult hero.

Even though he became frequently injured and ultimately could not prevent us from being relegated he was a pleasure to watch. As the injuries mounted up I at least took satisfaction in seeing him score with a smart finish at Newcastle. Unexpectedly he stayed with us in our return to the second flight, and on the last occasion that I saw him he ran the whole game against Portsmouth. As the club's finances took a turn for the worse under Mark Goldberg's disastrous spell as owner it became the time to pinch myself, and Lombardo returned to Italy with Lazio. No proper goodbye, and his only return since has been in his role with Manchester City's coaching staff.

Lombardo's time with Palace was somewhat of an aberration, and while other popular players came and went (e.g. Clinton Morrison, Andy Johnson and now Wilfried Zaha) there remained a point where you kept yourself detached. In reality Palace aren't a huge club, and great players will ultimately move onto better things. You remembered that.

However some things go a bit deeper than that. Back in October 1995 I was actually at the game where Dougie Freedman scored his first goal for Palace (I wasn't actually there at that moment, and didn't get there until half-time due to my return to Uni and fun and games with the train network). He scored plenty of goals that season, and although he didn't get as many the following season he still chipped in with a healthy batch of goals including two in the play-off semi-final against Wolves as Palace secured another promotion.

As Lombardo was settling in at Palace, Dougie was heading to Wolves, before moving onto Nottingham Forest and then ultimately back to Palace in 2000. When we needed him most, he came up trumps in the biggest moment, scoring at Stockport to help prevent a further relegation in the dying minutes of the 2000/01 season. More goals followed, including a 100th for the club in a win at Brighton. Even though Dougie wrapped up his playing career with a loan spell at Leeds and a period on the books at Southend, but he was Palace through and through, and we loved him for it.

When Palace went through even more financial difficulty and a further period of administration Dougie was back again, this time as assistant to temporary manager Paul Hart. When Hart left and George Burley took over Dougie remained as number two, and after Burley's brief and unsuccessful spell in charge he took over the manager's position himself. The ship was righted in quick but uninspired fashion, followed the following season by a trip to a League Cup semi-final and the permanent feather-in-the-cap moment of being the first team to win in the league at Brighton's new stadium. Yes, Dougie was one of us. He would take us places, he would stick with us, he would be the person who would be the visible face of the club moving slowly and surely forward.

What we didn't see was Dougie taking the manager's job at Bolton Wanderers. Reasons were speculated on, more money for him personally, more money to spend on players, a bigger club, a more successful recent history. Whatever the reason, fans were outraged.

At the same point that Dougie was leaving in another sport another of my favourites was exiting, only in a different fashion. Having joined the organisation in 1990 and consequently graduated to the Major League team in 1993, Chipper Jones headed into retirement having been with only the Atlanta Braves in all that time. Although the Braves had been similar to Palace when I started to support them, they changed very quickly to a point that players rarely moved for career aspirations or financial reasons. Consequently Chipper could be seen as loyal to the core.

However even then there are things which happen in retirement which I can't claim to be altogether comfortable with. Chipper clearly loves hunting, and he was a bit too comfortable for my liking in regard to a second divorce and how he has moved on from this. Chipper was always candid to the media while he was playing, and consequently it isn't fair to judge him differently now he has retired. Last year I finally succumbed and bought a "Jones/10" jersey to commemorate all he did for the team, and that is what I choose to remember.

Many years ago I had a friend who was a Los Angeles Dodgers fan. I remember on one occasion him telling me about Steve Garvey, about how he was idolised, and how he was believed to be so clean cut that schools were named after him. The only thing was that Steve Garvey was nothing like that, and all the accolades that were showered upon him were premature. You don't know how someone may really be considered until much, much later in life, if indeed during their life at all.

In time all our sports heroes will disappoint us. As time passes the wound of Freedman leaving will ease, but never totally be forgotten. Chipper's on-field deeds will be remembered while he tweets about shooting deer and continuing a new relationship. And as time continues to pass I will continue to ponder the relationship between the teams I support, the players who play for them, and the actions they take in their daily lives. It doesn't really impact me, and yet you can't help but think about it. Yes, they're heroes, but they're also human beings, and consequently as prone to do things that people don't like as anyone else.