It must be strange being a footballer. For most of us our careers, such as they are, stretch out into the great temporal unknown. (Mine does anyway – I know lots of people are in a hurry to get to ‘the top’, but if I ever reach ‘the top’ it will have been because someone drove me there against my will.)
But as a footballer you’re basically tied down to the knowledge that beyond, say, 33, you’ll be lucky to get the jobs you want. If you spend a year in the reserves you lose one of these crucial years, and you also lose time to build a reputation that then might get you a better job… before time runs out. Every season counts. It’s partly why injuries, which seem so ideal to those of us who’d love a few weeks out of circulation, are so distressing to footballers.
For Clint Dempsey that career clock started ticking quickly. He wasn’t in the top leagues until relatively late, and then he found that he couldn’t get the regular games he felt his ability deserved. Whether his talent was held back by Roy Hodgson or shaped by him is quite hard to untangle, but in any case, Dempsey under Mark Hughes and Martin Jol had become a fabulous player.
Too late, though. Had he been 25 he might have had the pick of clubs, but as things stood, in the eyes of a big club he was always a second hand lexus rather than the new ferrari his goals tally suggested.
Dempsey still believed in himself though, which is why he left Fulham, where a second hand Lexus was the best car in the garage (the metaphors are quite confused here, aren’t they? What with Fulham being a very wealthy area, too), to Spurs, where expensive (overpriced) cars were the norm.
He gave up being a big fish in a smallish pond to being a small fish in a big pond (lexus? fish? what next?).
We have talked before about the folly of ambition but you can’t fault Dempsey for trying. You can fault Jurgen Klinsmann for belittling Fulham and Dempsey’s achievements there, and you can fault football in general for transforming itself into a ‘me first, show me the money’ industry where individualism is all there is, but Dempsey, with that ticking career clock, had to at least try to move on.
The sad thing is that it all happened so wrongly. Spurs must have appealed on the basis that they were “somewhere else” but in retrospect it was a terrible choice for Dempsey, who could have been useful to a number of other half-reasonable teams, particularly had he looked abroad.
Mais non: he went to Spurs, a vehicle for the sprawling talents of the simian Gareth Bale, a team that had a number of good players who might also want Dempsey’s role, and which wasn’t in the Champions’ League either. He had an up and down season, a predictable one probably: he got some goals, but didn’t really convince his new team’s fans. He certainly didn’t have to move on after that, but a switch to somewhere like Everton, as mooted, would have made sense.
Then we find out he’s gone to Seattle. This makes a lot of sense as well:
1. the atmosphere he’ll play in front of will be great. I know American sports teams try to build in English style “passion” to their marketing, what with their songs and named groups and whatnot, but in truth English football is pretty passion-less. This is partly to do with all-seater stadia, and partly a demographics issue, but you can go entire seasons watching top level English football without experiencing a saucepan atmosphere, let alone a cauldron one. I went to Anfield a few years back, full of excitement: it was silent. True, it was ‘only’ Fulham, and perhaps the fans weren’t so thrilled to see us, but still. (Roy Hodgson, of course, noted the same thing while managing the club, which only made them hate him more). In any case, Seattle draws fans by the bucketload, and games there should be good fun for that reason.
2. he’ll be the star man. I think he’ll enjoy being “the man”.
3. he’ll be paid to be a star man. This matters, of course.
4. it’s not really a backwards step when you consider everything. I mean, he has a young family, which presumably he’d want to take home before long, so really what do you do? Mess around in England for four more seasons trying to recapture a glory that may never be re-caught? Move your family to Germany for a bit? Dunno, but moving to Seattle would be a decent option in that list I’d say.
5. why not? America seems to be a fabulous place to live if you have money. I’m stunned that more footballers don’t do this.
6. when you get to a certain material comfort zone, I’m told that life becomes less about securing more money than about leaving a legacy. Look at Tony Blair! He left us with the milennium dome and the Olympics! Where would we be without those! In any case, Dempsey playing in MLS probably does matter, on all kinds of levels. He’s making a difference to the game in the US. That’s important. Good on him.