Memory lane trips no good in reality
ANYBODY unfamiliar with the 'Football Manager' computer game should probably keep it that way if they value their spare time as something that they can control.
Those who have succumbed to the game's devilish addictiveness already know the dangers of staying awake until ridiculous hours of the morning just to finish the season or of being late for something of real-life importance because negotiations with a vital transfer target have suddenly become delicate.
In the game, the manager has the ability to control the entire club with levels of detail ranging from the size of the pitch to the style of training of the club's U-18s. They can choose the tactics, give specific instructions on how to deal with an opposition player and can even play mind-games with rival managers before important matches.
Its impact on real life is such that it has been cited in divorce cases and will give the 'manager' a rather unnatural attachment to real players who have performed well for 'his' club in the game (I'm particularly fond of West Ham's Fred Sears and Liverpool's Daniel Pacheco, whose loan spells aided my club's impressive League Two promotion push).
In order to earn the fans' approval, one of the most useful tricks is to sign a hero of the past. It's not necessary that he once played for the club but, even if his best performances came in the last century, his name will be enough to convince supporters of a manager's transfer-market acumen.
The real beauty, however, is that once the game isn't saved, the computer's 'Off' button can bring the manager back to before they signed the player and the whole sorry episode can just be forgotten.
There's no such safety-net for the two biggest signings of this (real-life) transfer window, who have had a similar effect on some supporters of tugging at the heart and fogging the mind.
The return of Patrick Vieira and Sol Campbell to the Premier League has been trumpeted as a no-lose situation for both Manchester City and Arsenal, given the proven pedigree of both players.
Leaving aside the argument that such a no-lose situation will cost the clubs £150,000-a-week and £70,000-a-week respectively, there's a waft of desperation about both deals. Both Arsene Wenger and Roberto Mancini have cited the winning mentality of their new old signings, both of whom were at their best when Arsenal played at a quaint little ground called Highbury. The players themselves say they are ready to repay the clubs' faith, but then players say a lot of things.
"This club has got great ambition and I want to be a part of it. It's a challenge but I think everyone connected to the club is prepared for that challenge. It's refreshing," said Campbell, five months ago when he joined Notts County. His assertion on Saturday that he 'feels really good' and is ready to give his all shouldn't fill Arsenal supporters with a great deal of confidence.
Vieira, meanwhile, reckons he is a better player than he was when he left the Premier League four-and-a-half years ago, although yesterday's reports that his move went through despite his failing a medical and his current nagging calf injury -- something 33-year-olds struggle to shake off -- could deny him the chance to prove his bold assertion.
When Manchester United signed Michael Owen, Alex Ferguson said: "Michael is a world-class forward with a proven goal-scoring record at the highest level and that has never been in question."
All of which is true except for that two-letter second word; change 'is' to 'was' and the sentence is irrefutable.
One of the characteristics which marks out great managers is their ability to look forward rather than back and before United became a feeder club for Real Madrid, Ferguson was happy to let players go despite criticism from the stands. There were few consenting voices when any of Andrei Kanchelskis, Lee Sharpe, Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, Roy Keane, David Beckham or Gabriel Heinze were deemed surplus to requirements at Old Trafford yet none went on to show anything like the performance level on which they built their reputation once theyleft.
It's the same story with Wenger, who has shown the door to Alexander Hleb, José Antonio Reyes and Matthieu Flamini while they were supposedly at their peak and Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires, Vieira and Thierry Henry when they had passed it.
With the exception of a couple of flashes in a highlights package, none have definitively proved that Wenger was wrong to let them go.
It was the same story for Campbell who, even when producing solid performances for Portsmouth, didn't have anybody in the Premier League's elite pining for his presence simply because the pace he once had was now vanished. The positive spin put on the Campbell and Vieira deals is that their experience will allow them to be in the right place but, if that logic held true, nobody would ever retire from the game.
Watch any great ex-pro in training and they can still spot a pass but the reason they can't play at their former level is because they can't keep up with players who wouldn't have been close enough to be in their shadow when they were in their prime.
The number of winner's medals in their trophy cabinets will always define them as fine players but, like a boxer having one too many fights, the legacy of Campbell and Vieira is in danger because their mind is writing cheques that their body can't cash.
Wenger's ability to spot a young player's potential and turn him into a world star is already indisputable.
If he can do the same thing in reverse with Campbell, there's not even a virtual manager who could compare.