Tuesday 24 October 2017

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be for the most loyal servants

Dion Fanning

A friend of mine once interviewed Shaun Wright-Phillips during his glorious Chelsea career. Chelsea were on a cup run so my friend talked about the club's great cup tradition, majoring on the famous and brutal Cup final replay against Leeds in 1970.

As he talked, he noticed that Wright-Phillips was staring blankly at him -- "as if I was speaking Klingon," he recalled later. Then somebody pointed out to him that asking Wright-Phillips to talk about 1970 was like asking Peter Osgood in 1970 for his memories of Herbert Chapman's Arsenal.

Every week a piece could be written about the glory days but nostalgia isn't called hypochondria of the soul for nothing. It is not that things weren't better in the old days, it is that it doesn't matter, we have no choice so there's no point in going back there.

The hypochondriac may well be sick but there is an illness in removing ourselves from our life and imagining what could go wrong with our bodies.

Nostalgia's malady takes us out of the imperfect present and says things were better in the past, which we survived, or in a time we didn't experience at all, instead of in the interminable now.

Last week, it was different. Pat Rice was a modern man but he was also steeped in memories. His departure last week from Arsenal makes it hard not to drift into a comforting world of nostalgia.

Rice spent a staggering 44 years at Arsenal, creating an illusion of permanence that was so persuasive it was hard not to think it was real. Those of us whose earliest football memories consist of the FA Cup finals of the late 1970s and, particularly the magnificent 1979 final, have always lived in a world where Pat Rice belonged to Arsenal.

In fact, he seemed strange then to me. The Arsenal team of 1971 in which Rice played, may as well have been in Herbert Chapman's time as it was before my football consciousness, or any consciousness.

But there he was in 1979 when I assumed the players had all arrived fully formed just to entertain me.

He was part of the background then, overshadowed by Stapleton, O'Leary and the long and bewitching shadow of Liam Brady (I copied a banner I'd seen at Wembley, 'Brady -- the bionic Irishman' and brought it to the Ireland-West Germany friendly at Lansdowne Road shortly afterwards. Unfortunately, mine was made out of paper and quickly perished).

Rice may even have been overshadowed by Sammy Nelson, the colourful left-back, representing all that he was not, but maybe all that Arsenal was not.

Nelson once mooned at the Coventry City supporters after scoring a goal at both ends, as it were.

There was none of that with Rice then and he offered stability, even within the stable world of Arsene Wenger.

Pat Rice left the club last Thursday with Wenger's thanks and an admission from the manager that his assistant had retired "because 'nervously' it's becoming more difficult."

Arsenal looked for continuity through the promotion of Steve Bould, with some expressing the hope that he might change Wenger's attitudes to defending. He may well do, but it is unlikely. Wenger's weaknesses are also his strengths and there would be no point to his genius if he suddenly started thinking he was wrong.

In the modern football world in which everything is wrong, Rice has been accused of being a Wenger 'yes man'. It was hard to know what people wanted, except everything. A number two might be better off being a symbol of the club, when it has a number one like Wenger who knows exactly what he wants.

To describe Rice as a yes man was to deny a complex relationship and to assume he could change things by defying Wenger, even if he wanted to. The truth is undoubtedly more subtle: Pat Rice loved Arsenal and it is hard to go against the thing you love.

The players talked last week of how they will miss him shouting at them in the morning before they went out for training. Shouting sometimes seems to be among the key tasks of the number two, a role they acquire when they pick up their coaching badges, after watching a series of DVDs of other number twos shouting.

It is an important role -- the man who understands the club shouting at Andre Santos, who doesn't understand anything, is all that football should be. Rice will have one more day of tension beside Wenger today, a day when Arsenal can finish below Spurs for the first time since 1995 and finish outside the Champions League places if everything goes wrong.

Spurs have talked a lot about how they won't get fooled again, how they will watch what they eat and avoid the lasagne that dragged them down in 2006. Some of us always believed the food poisoning was psychosomatic. It was merely a gastric manifestation of a spiritual problem, a reflection of all Tottenham fear about Arsenal.

Rice will cherish those moments but the tension will never leave him. He left in a week when Blackburn Rovers made the news. Steve Kean entered uncharted territory when he became the first manager to issue a dreaded vote of confidence in the board before denying that the reason he was still in a job was because Mrs Kean got on very well with Mrs Desai, chairperson of the Venky's. They are a club intent on self-destruction, although unlike most who decide to destroy themselves, they seem to be sentient and aware of all they are doing. The plight of Blackburn illustrates the fragility of what is called the personality of a club. It is predicated on the integrity of the people employed at any one time.

Blackburn Rovers is a founder member of the Football League, a club created in the dark industrial heartland of Lancashire and a club re-imagined by Jack Walker.

The Venky's reimagined the club as well, unfortunately they imagined it as a gothic fantasy, a medieval nightmare with the club slipping away from the fans and the good name of processed chicken being traduced as well.

The Venky's walked through the door of a club that understood its own history and then quickly ensured it was only history.

Blackburn's story is why men like Pat Rice are important. There may be an Arsenal DNA. It would be hard to define, it would probably be grand because there has been a grandness to everything, even the obstinacy of the George Graham years. But a football club is an aggregate of the people who work there. The values handed down are the values of men like Wenger and Pat Rice. The personalities that remain embedded at the club are the personalities that form its heart. Pat Rice may have had Arsenal DNA. Arsenal were equally lucky to get his.

dfanning@independent.ie

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