The professional football player is engaged in a constant struggle to perform at his peak. A myriad of factors come into play as each individual strives to reach their top level. One of the key variables is finding an optimum environment in which to work. There is no template to follow here. Each man must go it alone, choose his own path, and then live, die or thrive accordingly.
Twice a year Europe witnesses a level of migration to rival that of the wildebeest on the Serengeti as the western world’s last nomadic tribe, the Footballers, set off in SUV and private jet in search of more fertile pastures in which to operate. I would love to see the BBC’s Bruce Parry spend a few weeks in their company, learning to adapt to the mysterious ways of this secretive group that has for so long now lived in isolation, detached from modern civilisation, and defined by bizarre rituals involving champagne, prostitutes and over-sized headphones.
This mass human movement is in effect a giant never-ending race. Sometimes to the top. Sometimes to the bottom. More often than not to the mediocrity of the middle. Who wins and who loses is invariably difficult to decipher for winning and losing is largely relative here. It all depends on the runner and how he defines the finish line. It all depends on the size of the fish and the size of the pond.
For most English Premier League fans, Matthew Le Tissier is the archetypal big fish in a small pond. Look the term up in the dictionary and there he’ll be, gurning out at you with a gormless gap-toothed smile and a fringe that managed to change with the times in order to consistently be as offensive as possible. Sort of like a chubby Phil Tufnell.
For 16 glorious years Le Tiss ambled about the park in the red and white stripes of Southampton FC, sporadically mustering up the energy to thump, lob, and curl in an array of goals that would cause a mere mortal to wake up feeling guilty for simply dreaming of such heroics. Think early 1995 season Tony Yeboah, but the difference being Le Tiss did it for a decade and a half. Everyone will have their own favourite screamer but, for what it’s worth, mine is his last minute winner against Arsenal in Southampton’s final game, after 103 years, at the Dell. Chosen of course for the occasion, for what it must have meant to the club and the man, more than anything else.
Despite offers to play for more illustrious clubs, and thus challenge for trophies and improve his chances of a regular place in the England squad, MLT never left Southampton. He never won a thing but will tell you he achieved everything he wanted in the game and that his medal each year was looking at the Premier League table every May and seeing Southampton positioned 17th or better. They can make him sit beside Paul Merson every Saturday, but they can never take that away from him.
Henrik Larsson was another big fish in a small pond. Pond size here being a function of the league he played in rather than the club he played for. He arrived in Glasgow in the summer of ‘97 with a headful of dreads and an eye for goal. The head was eventually shaved but dread always remained in the hearts of the defenders who faced the Swede and in seven trophy-laden years he plundered 242 goals for the Hoops. But a big European prize always eluded Celtic and so in 2004 he packed his bags, put his reputation on the line, and signed for Barça.
When Larsson joined Celtic he was competing with Darren Jackson and Harald Brattbakk for a starting place. When he joined Barça, Ronaldinho and Eto’o, both in their prime, were ahead of him in the pecking order. A seat on the Camp Nou bench beckoned but when he tore his ACL in a game against Real Madrid, even that looked a distant dream. Suddenly he was a little fish flapping about helplessly on the muddy banks of the massive Cataluñan pond.
Thankfully FC Barcelona recognise class when they see it. Despite the injury and lack of playing time, they offered the Swede another year. He repaid them in his final match by coming off the bench to change the game and set up the two goals that beat Arsenal and brought the European Cup to Cataluña for the first time in 14 years. Henrik is one Nemo-esque little fish who took on the open waters of his big pond and, against the odds, emerged triumphant.
For every fish like Henrik Larsson, however, there’s young English fella who has had a decent season or two in a lower half of the Premiership pond and then makes his “dream” move to Chelsea. Think Steve Sidwell. Think Scott Sinclair. Think Scott Parker even. These are the fish that shrink overnight and spend a season or two treading water, desperately trying not to be flushed down the toilet like last Christmas’ unwanted goldfish. Thankfully, it is rarely long before they are returned to a pond-size more suited to their ability and the rebuilding process can begin.
So where does our hero Gareth Bale fit into all of this? Well, unlike Le Tissier, Bale made his move from a small south coast pond to an altogether greater expanse of water in the English capital. There, unlike Sidwell, Sinclair and Parker, he eventually flourished before, like Larsson, he chose to set sail for Spain and one of the biggest ponds of them all. More an infinite ocean of class than a pond really. Unlike Larsson however, not even the most profligate fishmonger in Madrid would describe Bale as a small fish. He is a €100 million whopping Welsh Whale shark of a specimen and with that comes more expectation, more responsibility, and more pressure. He has the talent but it remains to be seen if GB11 can develop into one of those rarest of beasts, a genuine Big Fish in a Big Pond.