LIAM MACKEY: Tread softly because you tread on their dreams

For those who do get to live the dream, how much harder then must it be to have to let it go and wake up to grim reality, asks Liam Mackey.

Your starter for 10: what have Arsene Wenger, Sean St Ledger, your humble correspondent and, for that matter, just about anyone who has ever kicked a football, got in common?

The answer is that we have all been seduced and, occasionally tormented, by dreams of glory.

Back in the day, mine was standard issue boy’s own fare: scoring a hat-trick for Ireland as we sensationally recovered from 3-0 to beat the 1970-vintage Brazilians in the World Cup final. My goals were a Pele-eclipsing boomer from the half-way line, a Rivelino-eclipsing ‘banana kick’ — yes, that’s what we used to call them, children — from fully 30 yards out and, topping the lot, an outrageous overhead winner in injury-time, the like of which simply had no precedent on the world stage. (For the record, Ireland’s other goal came after I was brutally chopped down in the box at the end of a length-of-field dribble which had left a trail of canary yellow shirts in my wake.

As gracious as I was talented, I allowed Johnny Giles the honour of stroking home the resultant penalty).

Yep, that little fantasy kept me happily entertained on many a slow day when Wanderly Wagon wasn’t quite hitting the sweet spot — even if my glaringly obvious lack of footballing talent meant that, deep down, I must have known even then that Judge, Mr Crow or, for that matter, Fairy Godmother herself, had a better chance of getting capped for Ireland one day.

All of which makes me wonder: for those who do get to live the dream, how much harder then must it be to have to let it go and wake up to grim reality?

Unlike me, Sean St Ledger might never have won the World Cup but, as something of a cult hero for Ireland in the Trapattoni era, the defender certainly experienced moments never to forget, not least with those goals he scored against Croatia at the Euro 2012 finals and against Italy in Croke Park. (We’ll charitably draw a discreet veil over what happened next in both games).

When we caught up with the now 32-year-old at a media event in the Aviva Stadium earlier week, he brought us up to date on his lonely attempts to recover from a horrific knee injury and re-float a career which, he was obliged to admit, most people believed had ended in America at least a year ago. But, no, even though it’s more than 12 months since he last played a match and six months since he was able even to kick a ball, Sean is giving it “one last bash”, putting all he’s got into what looks to the outsider like a desperate, and more than likely doomed, bid to postpone the dreaded day of retirement. And even as he spoke pragmatically about being willing to settle for the part-time game if there were no other offers on the table — “I miss football so much,” was his simple, heartfelt explanation — those old dreams of glory suddenly took hold again and began sweeping him away. Scanning the pitch at the deserted Aviva, his eyes took on a faraway look.

“My dream is to come back here and play,” he mused. “I’d give up everything just for one second out there. But everyone who has come in — Shane Duffy, Ciaran Clark — has been fantastic. And so it would be difficult to get back in. But I have to try and be positive about it, really…”

And, whatever we might have been thinking privately, what else could we say to that except to shake him warmly by the hand and wish him all the very best? And hope against hope, for his sake, that dreams can come true again.

Which brings me to Arsene Wenger and the victory — a pyrrhic one, his many critics are predicting — for Remain over Wexit.

The Frenchman never pulled up any trees as a player so, over the course of a lifetime, poured all his football hopes, dreams, ideas and energies into helping others maximise their potential, individually and as a collective. The results of his endeavours helped not only to transform Arsenal, but the English game, though not to the extent that his Gunners, for all that they were the Invincibles at home, were ever able to conquer Europe under his watch. I was in the press box in the Stade de France in Paris on that night 11 years ago when the sending off of Jens Lehmann effectively scuppered Arsenal side’s chances of beating Barcelona — the first and last time Wenger would come that close to claiming the ultimate glittering prize.

Tread softly because you tread on their dreams

Since then his tenure has fallen foul of the law of diminishing returns, this season the perfect encapsulation of the kind of maddeningly erratic form which has for so long infuriated the faithful: a belated surge culminating in another FA Cup but, in the final analysis, all too little and too late to paper over the cracks and avoid the relative ignominy of a place in next season’s Europa League.

I’m glad Wenger is staying on, but I say that as a fan of Arsenal, not a supporter, the distinction being that I can enjoy the enlightened style of football he has ingrained in his team without suffering the pangs when, repeatedly, it fails to deliver the desired results.

But here is Wenger now, at the age of 67, determined to give it another go, despite knowing full well that his enemies will be waiting for him in the long grass (and in the skies), ready to pounce on any and every sign of weakness, whether that’s some pre-season snafu, a failure to keep Sanchez, a failure to bring in a marquee name or defeat in the opening game of the season.

Wenger spoke about his decision to want to walk this minefield in terms of it being a natural extension of his “love affair” with Arsenal. Tony Adams, who fears that Wenger’s legacy at the club can only be further tarnished by continuing to overstay his welcome, has said he thinks the Frenchman is simply addicted to football management.

The football romantic in me would love to see Wenger confound the naysayers and, in two years from now (or more!) go out on a high. But I fear the outcome will be rather uglier than that because, if we know one thing about the game, it’s that it doesn’t tread softly when it treads on your dreams.


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