During their career, a footballer will go through many different stages on their way (they hope) to ‘the top’. Often, these stages are surrounded in hyperbole, and it is easy to think that the player in question has been performing at their current level for their whole careers, or that you as a fan have ‘always rated him’. 90% of the time though, they haven’t and you haven’t either. But, for an easy reference guide, here are the stages in the life-cycle of a footballer.
(Obviously, a player does not have to go through all of these stages, and can often get stuck somewhere halfway up the ladder. They may even get caught in a circle between having nothing and everything, most often between stages ‘Worst Player Ever’ and ‘Renaissance’. At any stage a player can fade into the purgatorical stage of ‘Obscurity’)
Everyone’s got to be unknown at some stage. This is the stage that gives all of us, even the ones who can’t kick a ball five yards and struggle to execute even the simplest of volleys, hope. Before they were famous, all these top-class footballers worked in chippies or van companies or carpet-fitters or something. Some of them didn’t even get signed until they were, by footballing standards, ‘too old’ (although in reality, this is ‘too old’ like Anakin Skywalker was ‘too old’ to start his training to become a Jedi. He was, like, seven, Yoda, and you must be nearly a thousand. Nine hundred and ninety-seven years is enough time to learn how to use the Force.)
Clubs outside of the top few leagues can also count as ‘unknown’. For example, Chris Smalling at Maidstone or Rickie Lambert at anywhere before he turned 29. As long as you haven’t come on the radar of a club owned by a billionaire, you’re unknown.
The step up from unknown. You might not have actually done anything with your career (or, even, life) yet but someone important has noticed you and fans who want to look like they know more than other fans are starting to take an interest in you. You’ve probably got people putting ‘Massive fan of ‘X’’ in their Twitter bios just so that someone will ask them who ‘X’ is.
Players of Football Manager will know this stage well from the numerous 16-19 year old players who have 5-star ‘potential’ ratings but 2-star ‘ability’ ratings. You want them at your club in 5 years but they’re not going to play yet: you give them a Hot Prospect contract.
‘Future England Captain’
This stage sums up the general hype that surrounds a youngster. They’ve become more than just a Hot Prospect, they’ve been tried out in the first team and have (usually coincidentally) hit a good run of form. They’ve got people going ‘It’s such a breath of fresh air seeing [INSERT NAME OF YOUNGSTER] playing, you know, cos they take chances and stuff’.
If a player shows a spark and doesn’t get suspended or do something racist then they are judged to have the temperament/grit/spark/vision (insert where appropriate) to being a future England captain. This presumes that they are English, of course, but there is generally more hype around English players in this country for obvious reasons.
Worst Player Ever
Once a youngsters run of good form has come to an end (as, with all runs of form, it will) people will start to wonder why ‘everyone’ is saying they are Future England Captain material. Revisionists, in historical terms, will seek to go back and change the record, telling everyone how ‘X’ player isn’t actually that good, and how we, the dumb, sheep-like public, have just followed the scent of hype and hyperbole.
Of course, this stage is just as much hype as the previous stage. What is most likely to have happened is that a player will have resorted to their natural playing ability, made a couple of mistakes (maybe even, shock horror, ones that a seasoned pro would not have made) and, as statisticians like to say, ‘reverted to form’. If they weren’t young (and, often, English) they would have temporarily faded into Obscurity.
Ah, the Renaissance, the ‘rediscovery’. This is the stage where that young star who you all thought was really-super-good turned out not to be really-supper-good after all and was actually rubbish but now has turned out not to be rubbish and is actually really-super-good again!
Basically, the youngster’s hit another patch of form which is good enough and lengthy enough for everyone to hype them up again. This also gives another chance for football revisionists to mock the original revisionists who claimed that the player had been rubbish all along. It also provides them with the chance to put themselves on a pedestal by claiming they ‘always believed in’ the player, even through their rough patch.
This stage is similar to Obscurity. However, as people are remembering ‘X’, they are not yet permanently Obscure. This stage is usually when a second player who plays in the same position as the first player is in the news for some reason and people look back and think ‘You know who else played in this position/role/style? X.’
Alternatively, it is when a FEC (Future England Captain) has ‘wasted their potential’ and ended up at a lower league club in relative obscurity for several years. Whether they really did waste their potential is a matter which should be conducted on an individual basis.
The stage when a player becomes consistently good for their side over a relatively lengthy period of time (ie a few seasons). This is not a step on the ladder up to the top, more an optional extra on the side. It usually occurs when a player has led their team from behind to win a crucial game once or twice or is seen as the ‘figurehead’ of a side. Less Common nowadays but some still achieve these lofty heights.
Has played consistently well (kind of) over a good number of seasons now and is the first name on the team-sheet. Getting close to all-time record appearance/goals/assists/clean sheets.
There are two stages to this stage. The first is when people start to call the player a Legend without really thinking, the player has just been really good for a long time: ‘Oh, he’s a legend of the club’. Then, there is the solid footing of the actual legends. A player does not need to go through the following stage to become a real, actual legend but sometimes it happens.
‘Is ‘X’ really a legend?’
The stage when, usually sensible, people stop and think about what the term ‘Legend’ actually means within the game of football, bringing on some deep, intellectual conversations about the semantics of the word.
Occasionally though, people who want to kick up a fuss may question the legitimacy of a player’s ‘Legend’ status for the hell of it or to get hits on their blog. These people are the ones who ‘always stuck by’ certain players and claimed to know all about ‘X’ ‘before all of the hype’.
Past it. Too old. Whether whispered under the breath or shouted from the terraces, this is a stage all players will and should go through. If a player doesn’t go through this stage it is because either the fans are needlessly sycophantic or the player has had to retire prematurely, whether through injury or alcoholism.
This stage can have two meanings. Either a player has emerged from Obscurity to have one last hurrah or their club/country is in crisis and they need to come out of retirement, ASAP (see, Paul Scholes). Occasionally accompanied by football revisionists: ‘Yeah, I’ve always thought ‘X’ is a super player and just what our team has always needed right throughout all 39 years of their life’.
Eventually, the end will come near and the player will have to face the final curtain. In a retirement press conference, they’ll say it clear; they’ll state their case, of which they’re certain. They’ll have lived a life that’s full, travelled each and every highway but more, much more than that, they’ll have done it their way.
Regrets, they’ll have had a few, but then again, they’ll probably reveal those in an upcoming (possibly ghostwritten) autobiography.
I won’t go through the whole Sinatra song, you get the idea, but at this stage, the footballer’s career is over and they will look to the future, never to step onto the field of play again (apart from their testimonial or a brief Second Renaissance).
What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Have I missed a stage?