Tuesday, 20 September 2011

There is a Lamp that's now going out

I found myself quite moved by Henry Winter's piece on Frank Lampard's poor form in the Telegraph this morning. If you're not bothered about football, then at face value, its not particularly interesting. I know this. But it got me thinking about how hard it must be for an elite athlete to come to terms with their physical decline.

I wondered if Frank Lampard lies awake at night thinking about death, or not being able to play football anymore, or whether he considers them to be the same thing. He probably doesn't. Quietly intelligent, he appears to be psychologically robust enough to adapt to a new life. Then again, how the hell would I know? I've never met him (though I did once see him in a casino with John Virgo, who was actually wearing a snooker-themed waistcoat like he used to on Big Break).

I admit I have no idea what goes through Frank Lampard's mind, I guess this post is more about me than him. When I woke up this morning, my right knee (my good one) was still swollen and sore from my Sunday League game. I've gradually come to terms with the fact that these aren't temporary injuries. The pain and stiffness can be temporarily alleviated, but my body is essentially decaying. So is Frank Lampard's and I'm just guessing that as distressing as I find this trend, it must be even harder for him.

With his Premier League record of 164 consecutive outfield appearances, Lampard is one of the most formidable athletes to have ever played the game. Ferguson called him a 'freak'. Former coaches say he wasn't a natural talent either. He worked for it, as hard as any player in modern football. Three years ago, Capello told Lampard "You are in the moment of your life". No doubt he meant to say something else, but I still think this was a truly beautiful way of describing an elite athlete at the peak of their career. Nothing else will compare.

But now its all drifting away from him. Of course this has happened to other players countless times before, but none that I consider the same generation as myself. At 31, I'm only two years younger than Lampard. My friends and colleagues have visibly aged over the years, but its easy to convince yourself that they don't eat and rest properly, or that they drink too much. But its not really possible to do that with Frank Lampard. If he can't do what he used to, then I definitely can't. Its just so final, it scares the shit out of me.

This must be something that all sports fans go through. The first time you see someone younger than you play top level sport, its a shock. Something gets hammered home... "See that kid on the TV? That's not you. It's never going to be you." Then again, I was always rubbish at sport but strong academically, so it wasn't exactly a devastating blow when Gerrard (three months my junior) leapfrogged me into the England starting XI. But now I'm watching men my age being superseded by a new generation and frankly its harder to stomach than Gerrard's England debut. It's not about getting older per se. I don't care that I don't know anything about modern music, I'm sure it wouldn't be that hard to learn about it. But what Lampard and Gerrard are now coming to terms with is that their physical vitality has been clipped. Permanently.

I wonder if this is why the likes of Ryan Giggs and Sachin Tendulkar are universally popular. Tendulkar truly is a 'freak'. He has a few grey hairs, but he more or less looks the same as the chubby 16 year-old who cheerfully batted on with a bouncer bloodied nose in his debut series against Pakistan. One of the few enjoyable moments for Indian cricket fans this summer were the warm receptions Sachin received on his walks out to the middle. I'm sure the crowd were mainly cheering a wonderful batsman who has been a joy to watch over the years, but I think one of the reasons we love him so much is his sheer stubborn refusal to get older. As long as he pretends he's still 16, we can too. He's batting, we're watching... nothing has changed.

Giggs is different. A few years ago, everyone had written him off. The conventional wisdom was that he'd had too many injuries, he couldn't survive without his pace. Wenger almost certainly would have given him a testimonial and sent him on his way. But the wonder of Ryan Giggs is not that he is still exploding down the wing like he did when he was 16, but that he courageously reinvented himself when he should have been growing new chins and getting pally with ex-pros in the Sky Sports studios. Tendulkar's 30s were a dream-like miracle because we were watching a boy who would live forever. Giggs' yoga-aided latter career on the other hand is nothing less than a resurrection. I wonder how many ex-players struggle to come to terms with life as just a regular human being. I imagine they must have dreams where, like Ryan Giggs, they can suddenly play again.

I saw an interview with Giggs recently where he was shown a goal he scored back in 1994. He looked a little shocked and Martin Tyler asked him what was wrong. He said he thought he could remember every goal he'd ever scored, but he just didn't recognize the scenes he was watching at all. In many ways that's because he's just scored so many over such a lengthy career and that should be cause for celebration. But you could see he was rattled, that it occurred to him that when ex-pros say "Well, at least you'll always have the memories", that might not necessarily be true, that while 20 years of professional football is beyond the wildest dreams of even the most deluded kid, on his deathbed, it will feel like it all flashed by in a heartbeat.