Thursday 18 January 2018

Van Persie's peculiar career reaching a fitting conclusion

'In reality, he (Van Persie) only had just three seasons of being the player he always looked like becoming'
'In reality, he (Van Persie) only had just three seasons of being the player he always looked like becoming'
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

If the two programmes on Sky Sports 5 last Tuesday were taken as one movie script, it would have lifted viewers' hearts with the story of an unlikely hero.

In the 'movie', the main character, Robin, is summoned from the bench by a veteran manager in a desperate attempt to win a game of football.

As is the case in many films, things get worse before they get better and Robin manages to score into his own net to leave his team-mates wearing orange shirts crestfallen.

The uplifting part arrives, however, when Robin stands over a late free-kick and, thanks to a deflection, becomes the hero of the game with a last-minute winner which leaves another veteran manager beaming with happiness on the sideline.

The peculiar part about the movie is that Robin's jersey has suddenly changed from orange to red and there is less grey in his hair than there was earlier but perhaps the 'movie' just slipped up a bit in continuity.

Of course, there was no movie and the unfortunate juxtaposition of programming underlined just how far Robin Van Persie's stock had fallen.

Soon after the final whistle blew to end the calamity of Holland's Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, Sky Sports 5 showed a 'Premier League Classic' in which Manchester United beat Manchester City 3-2.

Having watched Van Persie toil along with the rest of his team-mates against the Czech Republic, is was almost cruel to see the same player, just under three years ago, in the prime of his career and spearheading Manchester United's charge towards a 20th league title.

At his best he was, as Jamie Carragher put it, like a burglar because of his ability to take advantage of unsighted defenders, but since Alex Ferguson left United he has looked like a burglar who was an expert in picking Basta locks only to find everyone has switched to Yale.

There are few things as difficult to watch as a great player suddenly discovering that all of the things that once made him great are no longer working.

It's particularly the case with Van Persie because, in reality, he only had just three seasons of being the player he always looked like becoming and, like there was for most of his career, there's a nagging sense of frustration and unfulfilled potential.

In a superb profile of Van Persie in 'The Blizzard', Dutch writer Leo Verheul wrote about watching him grow up with a ball constantly at his feet and his child-like love of football.

"He always worships the kid in himself," wrote Verheul. "The artist. Not the money-maker. Not the collector of personal prizes. He is the player with the artist-blood of his parents in his veins."

This season, however, the kid in Van Persie hasn't been the one that gets excited on Christmas Day; it has been the one that has sulked because he has been told that it's past his bedtime.

On the bench at Fenerbahce, Van Persie, who turned 32 in August, wore the perplexed look of a man trying to figure out what exactly happened over the last three years. A warm-up rondo game - or piggy-in-the-middle as it was before Pep Guardiola came along - appeared online showing Van Persie's chasing after the ball with all the enthusiasm of the same child trying to eat his least favourite vegetable.

On Tuesday, with 20 minutes remaining, Holland's hopes were all but over at 3-0 down when Klaas-Jan Huntelaar scored a fine header from a corner. As the ball hit the net, Van Persie was standing on the goal-line, three feet from the ball, but didn't even bother with the ritual of grabbing the ball to bring it back to the half-way line.

A little while later, Van Persie poked the ball past Petr Cech to make it 3-2 and turned to jog back to the half-way line as Huntelaar underlined the contrast by running from the edge of the 18 yard box to pick the ball out of the net.

Van Persie is Holland's record goalscorer and Tuesday's strike extended that tally to 50, but for a player who spent so long of the recent past scoring goals that mattered, it must be dispiriting to be netting consolations for your country before returning to your club to play in the Turkish League and Europa League.

Van Persie returned with a 35-yard winner against Kayserispor and should at least be motivated for next Thursday night when Fenerbahce host Ajax, a club whose fans once attacked him during a reserve game while he was at Feyenoord and left him fearing for his life.

It was also the game in which Arsenal decided for certain that they wanted to sign him, but for a player who could produce magic such as the stunning volley against Charlton, he only managed to get more than 12 league goals once in his first seven seasons.

Injuries hampered him consistently, however, and it's a measure of how dominant he could have been that the only two campaigns in which he featured in all 38 league games, he managed 30 and 26 goals - the latter feat winning him his first league title.

The strangeness of his career is summed up by the move from Arsenal to United in which both teams can argue with some justification that they got a good deal. However, once Ferguson departed, so too did the dominant player that Van Persie was threatening to become.

"The person it hit more than anyone was Robin. He'd come the year before, tasted that success and wanted more," wrote Rio Ferdinand of the day that Ferguson told the players of his retirement.

"Visually you could see it hit him harder than anyone else."

It's a measure of the regard in which he is still held that Barcelona were linked with a move for him last week and there are managers with Premier League teams who might try to re-discover the best of Van Persie in January - although a return to Arsenal might be pushing it with their supporters, if not their manager.

"My most important dream is to stay as long as possible the kid that I still feel within me," Van Persie told Verheul. "That's what I am. And that is what I always want to be: just a kid with only one wish, to play football."

If there's a manager out there who can get the best out of that kid again, it would indeed be a tale worthy of a movie script.

Irish Independent

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