Wednesday 29 January 2020

Dion Fanning: Extraordinary torment of one man's descent to ordinariness

That was the Week

Dion Fanning

There is a man living in my neighbourhood who wears a kilt the whole year round. He has little of the forced, determined joy we associate with men in kilts. Instead he scurries about with a serious look on his face, attending to his daily business, as we all attend to our daily business, the only difference being that he is wearing a kilt.

He has skinny white legs and on warm days, he might only wear a string vest along with the kilt. I see him quite regularly and I pay no more attention to him than I do to the postman.

Occasionally I'll be on the street when a builder or somebody new to the area sees a man in a kilt walking down the road. Their startled reaction forces me to notice that, yes, here's a man wandering around on a Tuesday afternoon in a kilt with none of the desperate joy society has come to expect from men in kilts and maybe that is a little odd. Then again, you can get used to anything.

About 70 minutes into Chelsea's game with Spurs on Wednesday night, Fernando Torres kicked the ball ahead of him and tried to sprint past Jan Vertonghen. Instead of accelerating in any meaningful sense, Torres couldn't get past the defender and the ball went over the end-line.

In the crowd, nobody groaned, in fact they appeared not to notice. Torres' descent into ordinariness has, by now, become banal so his failure to reach the ball was no more than the crowd expected. You can get used to anything.

Torres now brings the same menace onto a football field as Bobby Zamora, although there is always the chance that Zamora will inadvertently head the ball into the net. Torres can't catch those kind of breaks any longer. As the ball ran away from him on Wednesday night, he was entering into his 19th hour without a league goal, a thousand minutes on the field since he scored against Aston Villa on December 23.

Back then, there was some talk that Rafael Benitez might get the best out of him, something Benitez wisely stopped talking about shortly afterwards.

Torres looks like a man who has become estranged from his talents. To watch him on the pitch is to be reminded of one of those couples who stopped talking to each other way back in 1983 but sit silently across the kitchen table, quietly resentful of something said or something forgotten a generation ago.

Torres broods at himself, almost tangibly separated from the gifts that used to get him through games but which he now can't forgive because they have forsaken him in his time of need. There are moments when he tends to forget this separation and he is released from this silent place and the joy returns.

On those rare days, everything is ok as he is freed from the terrible burden of putting up with himself but then he puts the key in the door and nothing has changed as he remembers that the relationship which was once so meaningful has irretrievably broken down.

His loss of pace is the most obvious physical reason for the decline, but it has been compounded by this withdrawal, this sullen retreat from what is left and what he's left with.

Torres has carried around this unhappiness for some time, reportedly irritating players at Chelsea with comments about how good things were at Liverpool. Happiness is always some other place, some place where Fernando Torres is not.

He's stuck with himself now. "I learned to look at myself and to realise that the only person that can change is you," he said last year in one of those interviews when he was talking up his chances of returning, like the Conservatives when they elected Iain Duncan Smith and insisted that what the British public wanted now was a man they didn't recognise.

Torres has had these moments in his two-and-a-half years at Chelsea. He has spoken positively as recently as two weeks ago about the contribution he can make when the world knows that he has made his contribution to the game, but, in recent years, not in the way he anticipated.

He can't say anything else when every question is the same. How could they not be when nearly every game is the same, every moment reveals this extraordinary decline and he must deny it is taking place.

On Wednesday night, he had to watch as Emmanuel Adebayor played with characteristic abandon, delivering the perfect Emmanuel Adebayor performance, combining uselessness and magnificence in a powerful cocktail.

When Adebayor flicked the ball to Gylfi Sigurdsson for Tottenham's second goal, he gestured to his own fans to highlight his contribution. It was as if he was saying, "That, my friends, is what Emmanuel Adebayor is all about."

Afterwards, AVB was asked if it was frustrating to watch Adebayor perform like that when so often he doesn't. Naturally, he said it wasn't and it would have only been mildly surprising if he had added, "because he's a complete eejit who is capable of anything." All he has in common with Torres is their shared inability to predict what will happen next.

Adebayor handles it in a different way, shrugging off this unpredictability as the only downside to the whole magnificent Emmanuel Adebayor package. With Torres, it's hard to tell if he has stopped caring, cares too much or if he has been replaced by his useless brother.

His fall is one of the sporting wonders of the age. He is a painful presence in every game, a reminder that there is only one thing more tormenting than hope and that's the absence of hope.

This season it has all ended. Nobody is expecting the old Torres to return. Even when good things happen, nobody expects them to happen again. Perhaps he is not divorced from his talents, maybe he is simply pining for abandoned love.

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