Bill Shankly, the Liverpool manager from the late sixties and seventies, once said that football was not a matter of life and death; it was more important than that.
While his comments may have been slightly tongue in cheek, there is an element of truth in what he said.
Football evolves and changes with the players and managers that grace it. Players come up through the ranks, move into management, or ownership, and then retire in a perpetual cycle.
As a young fan, I had no idea about how old players were. All I knew is that they were much older than me and were people to be looked up to.
Footballers didn’t age, they just got more experienced. When players changed clubs, retired, or moved into a managerial position, I never considered it a sign that they were aging as people. That was just the way things worked.
The facts of footballing life for me were thus: trainee, player, manager, pundit. That was it. As you get older however, and become more aware of your own mortality, you see that although life is short, a footballer’s career is even shorter.
The current European Championships have made me realise now that I am no longer a young supporter. I have transcended the planes of adolescent fandom and am now entering my own kind of football adulthood.
The players I have watched emerge onto the scene and take the game by storm are closing on retirement. Raul never even made the Spanish squad. Lilian Thuram looked off the pace and a shadow of his former self. Ruud Van Nistlerooy is the elder statesman of a young and vibrant Dutch team. The Italian defence has no Nesta, Cannavaro, or Maldini!
New and improved players are becoming the stars of their national sides, and for me, here lies the real sticking point. How do I approach my role as supporter now?
They are, in some cases, two or three years, younger than me—Ronaldo, Rooney, Fabregas, Torres, Sneijder, Ramos, De Rossi, Podolski, Modric.
As a young fan you go out, you get the shirt, you idolise and mimic and you trade their much sought after sticky backed visages with your mates—two for a shiny, remember.
I can't in my right mind go out now and buy a shirt with “Modric” on the back, knowing he is younger than me, can I? How can I hero worship a younger chap?
Should I even be buying a shirt at all anymore? Should I let a bad result ruin my weekend? Should I really be shouting and swearing at the TV any more?
I am at a stage of my football supporting life that I never expected to happen.
Watching the Ryan Giggs special a few weeks ago that looked back over the Welshman’s illustrious career gave me a cold sweat. Ryan Giggs can’t be close to retirement surely? He’s only, what 28… 30… 33… 34! I remember his first ever game on Match of the Day. Now he's close to hanging up his boots.
At White Hart Lane this year I overheard a couple of blokes talking about Tottenham’s left sided problems and I began nodding to myself in silent agreement as they discussed David Ginola and how special he was on our left side.
To my horror, one of the chap’s sons, he looked about ten, piped up with, “Who was Ginola, Dad, was he that good?” I could have cried. Then it dawned on me. Ginola’s peak time at Spurs was in 1999. Nine years ago. When that young lad would have still been in nappies.
Life moves on. Of course it does.
I must’ve been a naive fool to think that my footballing world would not succumb to the inevitable. I will miss the names of those players I grew up watching and knowing intimately through their statistics and club records but I look forward to the new names that are sure to become the biggest of the big.
I look forward to being able to take a step back and say, that lad’s a bit special, and comparing the new breed with the old, with a big bright pair of rose tinted specs on.
Of course I'll scream and shout. Passion doesn't diminish as you get older, nor should it.
I am still young myself. As a 25 year old in the prime of life I appreciate now that football, like life itself, changes and moves on with the rest of us and as a fan I realise that my appreciation and understanding of the game will change with it.
Perhaps Bill’s words of wisdom were even truer than I first thought.
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