Messigate: Even heroes move on – and it’s often with a bad taste

LIONEL Messi’s press conference portrayed a man struggling to keep his emotions in check, an inevitable consequence of the debacle around his contract and eventual departure from Barcelona. It looked very staged, almost false, and in truth, the Barca faithful deserved a better way to say farewell to their talismanic hero. Overall, it was a shabby end to a glorious saga.

But how often does this happen? In Messi’s case, it is an almost unprecedented situation, but over the years, the unsatisfactory end to a career is something we’ve seen on many occasions.

In the days before players announced the end of their international careers and sent love letters to fans via social media as they galloped off for a better deal, players would disappear from their clubs, noted by a small article announcing they had signed for a lesser club. Today, the departure of a player is an event, just as transfer deadline days are now a week-long tale of reporters standing outside training grounds for the slightest glimpse of action.

The idea that Messi is bigger than his employer is not an outrageous suggestion, but in the past, the club was certainly bigger than the player and if it ever got tested, the club would win. Players that felt they were so much part of the furniture they deserved certain privileges, invariably left with no small degree of bitterness. The word “servant” has been an inappropriate description of a long-serving player, but using that term today is frankly quite obscene, just as the concept of a testimonial for a multi-millionaire player is somewhat insulting, even if they signal all the virtues by using their benefit game as a way to attach themselves to a charity through ticket sales to fans. 

Great players eventually pass into history as nobody can cheat Father Time for ever, not even Messi. Nobody wants to see a good clubman outstay his welcome and start to chip away at their well-earned reputation. Every club has such a player, even your local non-league outfit. The fact is, once the player has become less effective, the club will soon find a way to remove them from the front line, perhaps giving them a coaching role until the contract runs off.

There are some players that are so indelibly linked to a club that nobody can imagine that club without them. Messi is certainly one of those players, but it is surprising how quickly you become history. 

When Bobby Moore left West Ham in 1974, it felt like the club had lost its right arm. Moore was in decline, but he was, after all, the captain of England’s World Cup team. He had been an international right up until 1973 but he wanted to leave West Ham. At 32, he was still highly-rated, but the Hammers would not let him leave on a free transfer and asked for a fee. Moore was unhappy about the club trying to make a bit of cash out of a player who was an icon and a man of his time. 

Around the same time, Chelsea’s hero, Peter Osgood, was sold to Southampton. Osgood was – and remains to this day  – a Chelsea hero and his departure was catastrophic for the club. Osgood and Alan Hudson effectively fell-out with manager Dave Sexton, and the club backed their coach rather than the players. There is a school of thought that Chelsea were willing to sell them because of the growing financial crisis at the club. How different from today – in such a situation, the manager would almost certainly be sacrificed. Both players did return in some shape or form, but the magic was gone and it is fair to say it took a decade for Chelsea to recover from that disastrous period.

George Best and Manchester United was another story that ended badly. Best, whose lifestyle was sub-optimal for a professional sportsman, walked out on the club in the 1972-73 season after two years of wayward behaviour. He quit the game, explaining to a group of journalists on a Spanish terrace that he had fallen out of love with football and later revealed he was drinking too much. Tommy Docherty persuaded him to come back, and depending whose story you believe, the reunion was doomed. Despite the way Best conducted himself between 1970 and 1972, he still felt as though he was badly treated at the end of his career. 

As Messi joins Paris Saint-Germain, for arguably the most lucrative swansong in football history, it is clear the diminutive Argentinian is not bigger than Barcelona. Both parties wanted to continue their relationship, but Barca, in the end, had to show him the door, however much they might love Rosario’s favourite son.

And that’s how it should be, clubs are the employers, players the employees. Over the past couple of decades, player power and demands have really run football, with intermediaries adding to the cost. The more advisors, agents, fixers and hangers-on there are, the more cost ineffective it all becomes – everyone takes their cut. Barca’s financial mess will take time to solve, but they could no longer move heaven and earth to accommodate their prized asset. It must have been a hard decision to make, but they did the right thing. 

Peter Osgood: Chelsea’s king will never be forgotten

ONE DAY in January 1993, my telephone rang at work. “Hello, mate, it’s Peter Osgood here.” I hesitated, gasped and was a little nervous with my reply. “I used to have a poster of you on my bedroom wall,” I uttered. “I hope you still haven’t got it up,” he quipped.

Here was my boyhood hero,  Peter Leslie Osgood, born Windsor, February 20 1947, 6ft 1in tall, favourite food steak and chips, calling me on the telephone and talking to me about a sportsman’s dinner. I was, to use a much-used footballing cliché, “over the bloody moon”. “See you Ossie,” I said as the conversation ended, attracting some ribbing for some years to come from those that overheard the call.

Ironically, the day of that call was January 29, 1993, almost 23 years to the day that I saw P.L. Osgood for the first time. My first full Chelsea game, Chelsea v Sunderland at Stamford Bridge. It is a moment in time that I have never forgotten. A sort of rite of passage for any football fan.

Osgood had been my idol from about nine years old. At primary school, everyone seemed to support Manchester United. They were the League Champions in 1967 and they had, of course, Georgie Best, who made footballers trendy and aligned to the mood of the time. He was a by-product of the swinging sixties. “Osgood was good, now he’s no good,” was one of the chants I recall from playground antics. Osgood had burst onto the scene in the mid-1960s and broke his leg in 1966. In 1967-68, he was still trying to recapture the form that had him compared to legends such as David Jack and Alfredo Di Stefano.

Arrogance

There was an air of arrogance about “Ossie” that appealed to the young football fan. A swagger and confidence that was as representative of the time as Best’s long hair and his carefree  appearance of “shirt outside shorts”.  He was the Michael Caine of football, a Flashman-esque character with just a hint of notoriety about him.

In 1968-69, he was still short of his best form, so much so that Chelsea manager Dave Sexton switched him into midfield, giving him the unfamiliar number four jersey. But in 1969-70, it all came right for the “wizard of Oz”.

He formed a  devastating partnership with Ian Hutchinson, who effectively replaced the ageing Bobby Tambling. The duo became one of the most feared in the league and really, it was a coupling that lasted just one season, 1969-70.

The time was right for me to pay my first visit to the Bridge. I had an aborted trip a few months earlier when we got as far as South Kensington before hearing that Chelsea’s game with Stoke City had been called off. I was almost in tears. But at last, January 31, 1970 heralded my initiation ceremony. My Dad had persuaded a workmate to take me to the game.

Everything about that day is ingrained in my memory. The journey on the tube – possibly my first ever, invoking a sense of caution when walking up an escalator as a recent news report had recalled how a young girl had got her foot caught and lost a leg – and the smell of cigar smoke rising in the air at the ground. The pre-match music – Love Grows (where my Rosemary goes) by Edison Lighthouse had just gone to number one –  and the chanting: “Osgood, Osgood, Osgood, Osgood…born is the king of Stamford Bridge”. Standing beside the players’ tunnel in the old East Stand at Stamford Bridge, you could smell the pre-match wintergreen filtering up from the dressing rooms. It all added to the air of expectation. You also had the chance to see the opposition manager, who  more often than not, sat just above the standing area  by the tunnel.

Classic

It was important for Chelsea that they put on a good show against Sunderland. A week earlier, they had lost 2-5 at home to Leeds United, who had fairly well walloped Sexton’s men and cast a few doubts about the Blues’ ability to keep pace at the top of the table. With Everton and Leeds both going great guns, Chelsea’s best hope of success was the FA Cup and they had a tricky away tie at Crystal Palace coming up in round five.  Against Leeds, the error-prone Tommy Hughes had been in goal, but Peter Bonetti was back against Sunderland and Chelsea had their classic line-up in action: Bonetti, Webb, McCreadie, Hollins, Dempsey, Harris, Cooke, Hudson, Osgood, Hutchinson, Houseman. Substitute was Baldwin. Sunderland had a fine keeper in Jim Montgomery, Colin Todd in defence and Dennis Tueart up front, as well as Joe Baker and Bobby Kerr. They were near the foot of the table and relegation bound.

But before Chelsea took a strangehold on the game, Sunderland could have been two goals up. Then Osgood struck with two goals in three minutes. Then first came on 19 minutes when Peter Houseman’s cross was midhandled by the usually reliable Montgomery and Osgood shot high into the net. An easy finish. Then on 22, Charlie Cooke fed Osgood and he sent a swerving shot past the Sunderland keeper.

While the near-40,000 crowd was expecting a deluge of goals, Chelsea seemed to ease-up. In fact, there was some slow hand-clapping for a while as the fans tried to urge them.  Joe Baker pulled one back with 20 minutes to go, but Osgood added his third on 78 with a carefully-placed right-foot shot. “Osgood for England,” shouted the Shed End, pleading for Sir Alf Ramsey to include the Chelsea number nine in his forthcoming squad. Three weeks later, “Ossie” made his England debut in Brussels against Belgium, a 3-1 win for the World Champions. Unless something dramatic happened, Osgood would be on the plane for Mexico 1970.

Ossie didn’t get much of a look-in with England, though. Ramsey was never too convinced, always preferring the establishment figure of Geoff Hurst (well, he did score three goals in that final) to the more wayward talent. He made a couple of cameo appearances in the World Cup as substitute and after that, he got one more call-up in 1973. He didn’t have the best of seasons in 1970-71, struggling to find his scoring boots while Spurs’ Martin Chivers became prolific in front of goal. There was this theory that Ramsey always favoured Spurs and West Ham. In 1971-72, Osgood was back to his goalscoring best, but the Chelsea team of that era was starting to fade. March 4, 1972 saw them lose a Football League Cup final they should have won and the momentum that had brought the FA Cup (1970) and European Cup Winners’ Cup (1971) was gone. Osgood, much to the heartbreak of my generation, left the club in 1974 to join Southampton. The spell was over.

We don’t need another hero

In 1993, I finally met my hero. In truth, he couldn’t lose, but I was delighted to learn that he was a decent fellow, brimming with bonhomie and blokeish stories of past glories. Never mind that he pissed in the FA Cup (that makes me smile when I see winners’ drinking out of it), he was still the King of Stamford Bridge.  When he left the dinner that evening, he hugged me like an old team-mate. I told him that it meant the world to meet him after all these years, and he kissed me on the forehead! He spent most of his fee buying drinks for all and sundry.

I met “Ossie” on a further two occasions, at a signing ceremony in the City of London of the Chelsea centenary book and then, early in 2006, at a reunion lunch of the 1970 team. By now, he looked grey – I pointed this out at the time to a friend – and was struggling to walk comfortably. Less than two weeks later, he died.

It’s another cliché, but I was as “sick as a parrot” when I heard Osgood had died. Part of my childhood was consigned to the attic that day. I don’t mind admitting it brought a tear to my eye as I watched the footage on TV that evening. I went to his memorial service and as the famous Osgood song echoed (quite literally) around Stamford Bridge that Sunday morning, I had a huge, football-sized lump in my throat. They buried his ashes beneath the penalty spot in the Shed End. He’s still there, checking out every goal. And every year, without fail, I remember January 31 as the day I saw my childhood hero score a hat-trick.

 

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA