Any footballer can have talent. Most of them do; you can’t reach the higher tiers of the sport without it. Slogging through youth systems, taking your chance at scouting meets, or catching the eye of a visiting luminary is next to impossible without a hefty serving of aptitude. Sure, having truckload of natural ability is better than a thimbleful, but what good is talent if it’s hamstrung fifty per cent of the time, lying unused and frustrated on the treatment table? The secret to greatness is availability, the capacity to endure and recover from the gruelling week-in, week-out trauma of elite football. The myth of players being ‘fully-fit’ is a lasting one – a player has to fly to a distant, pockmarked corner of Europe on Wednesday, play on a dodgy pitch in temperatures barely above freezing, and take an almighty kicking from a 6 ft 4 henchman defender. Then they fly back to England, and are described as ‘fully fit’ in four days time, ready to take on a snorting Ryan Shawcross. Of course they aren’t one hundred per cent, who could be? But even at three-quarter strength, the best players survive this unbearable gauntlet, tarrying enough to dazzle the punters, up to three times a week, all season long.
All season long, that’s the key. It is’t necessarily the ability to avoid season-ending injuries that’s the most significant part of it, because the causes of those broken legs, or ruptured knee ligaments are usually outside the bounds of a players control. Reckless, red-misted tackles, or freakish mid-air collisions, or artificial playing surfaces are too often the culprits there. No, really it’s more the niggling 4-6 week injuries, acquired tri-annually, that stop a player from becoming the star they deserve to be. Aaron Ramsay, after missing a crucial period last season for Arsenal, has just been ruled out for 6 weeks with a popped hamstring, struck down in a match that had been allegedly preceded by a period of light training. Before Ramsay, Robin van Persie spent many seasons at Arsenal as a constant subject of despondent, yearning looks from the fans, as he waited patiently for his various ailments to heal on the bench. Abou Diaby has done the same, and perhaps Wenger should make industrial fatigue testing a prerequisite for signing with the club. Looking down the Premier League injury list, some names sit ever-so-comfortably on it, players who would be King, but instead have spent their careers dancing every other song with the spectre of convalescence.
Andy Carroll and Christian Benteke are two strapping, young strikers whose careers have stalled because of a tendency to crock themselves. The playing style of each of these two men, involving a lot of majestic, equine soaring, thunderous head-to-ball contact, and heavy, wince-inducing splashdown, means that they’re plagued with lower leg injuries all too often. Both are currently out with respective ankle and shin knocks.
Arsenal played 56 competitive games last season, in all competitions. It was a typical year in terms of fixtures for the Gunners, 38 league games, excelling in one of the domestic cups, and exiting the Champions League in the Round of 16. So, taking 56 games as a good average figure for games in a season for Arsenal, Theo Walcott has, over nine seasons in London, played more than 40 games in only two of those seasons. He averages 35 games a season, so he generally misses more than a third of Arsenal’s games, most of those absences enforced due to injury.
Looking back, the story of football is footnoted generously with players whose careers have been ruined by injury proneness. Owen Hargreaves was the saviour of England’s midfield, except that his body wouldn’t allow it. Harry Kewell’s post-Leeds career was a corporeal disaster on par with the best of David Cronenberg’s filmography. Ledley King, a divine defender at his best and most healthy, was marred horribly by the perilous situation that existed between his thighs and shins.
Why hasn’t Marco Reus been snatched away from Dortmund, like all of their other stars? Is it because he’s recently begun to show signs of frailty, at age 25? Will Jack Rodwell, still only 23 but a player whose considerable potential has been already impeded by injury, mature into the midfield dynamo he was supposed to become? And let’s not forget Lucas Leiva, who has been a constant source of false hope for half of Liverpool.
Endless other examples lie prostrate, holding the backs of their thighs, and extend onwards over the horizon. So who is the benchmark for durability? Well, the teams that consistently stride into the latter stages of the domestic and European cups place the most demand on their players, so let’s start there.
From 2002 to 2013, there were only 2 seasons where Frank Lampard made less than 45 appearances, in fact, he averaged 50 appearances per season over that 11 year period. It was this consistency that allowed Lampard, a midfielder, to rise to the top of the Chelsea scoring chart, that made him such an important player in Chelsea’s best years, and such a beloved favourite of the fans. Cristiano Ronaldo, that emperor of physical self-improvement, has averaged just under 50 appearances a season since 2004. He has taken the clear lead in his tit-for-tat rivalry with Lionel Messi over the last two seasons mainly because he has maintained his near ever-presence (and brilliance) for Real, whereas Messi has stumbled because of fitness issues. Even so, Messi himself has averaged 50 appearances a season since 2007.
What Ronaldo shows is that being reliably fit is due to more than just good luck, or being a less explosive player; it goes hand in hand with the strictest routine of physical discipline, with the never-ending task of maintaining your body like machine that needs to be well-oiled and in high-end working order, despite the mileage it might have churned through. There is no footballer more focused on striving for physical perfection than Ronaldo.
You’re no good if you’re not available. As Dean Ashton will testify, all it takes is one unfortunate moment, and suddenly all the talent in the world no longer matters at all. But another suspicion lingers, one intimating that players assume talent will carry them into the history books, and nestle them deservedly among the game’s greatest. If they’re lucky it might. Otherwise, a destiny as a footnote, a mournful crippled memory, awaits them.