Paddy Davitt: Does football really matter? Ricky’s story tells you it does
- Credit: Richard Blaxall/Focus Images Ltd
Football is immaterial in a world changed forever by the global pandemic. That hardly needs to be stated.
When Norwich City’s season resumes, if it resumes and just how really pales at this point. All the talk of furloughing, player wage deferrals and multi-million broadcast rebates is frankly distasteful with the daily death rate in the hundreds and hundreds, the unfolding scandal of what is happening in our care homes to our most vulnerable, and the heroism and bravery of those on the frontline fighting this virus.
But there is also a semblance of reassurance to know that, in time, the simple pleasure of watching a ball kicked around a patch of grass will return. That latter point was made by Ricky van Wolfswinkel in recent days, who more than most can talk about the triviality and also the yearning of missing the game he loves.
The 31-year-old underwent life-saving brain surgery earlier this season after a routine head scan uncovered an aneurysm. Returning to the football pitch was pretty immaterial. But he managed it in February for FC Basel, before doctors advised another four-week lay-off, which then ran into the back of the current shutdown for the professional game to try and deal with a deadly virus.
There was plenty of goodwill and plenty of warmth in these parts when the Dutchman’s shocking health news first emerged earlier this season. His enduring popularity in Norfolk belies a career posting that never remotely lived up to the hype that accompanied a then club record arrival from Sporting in 2013.
This was the weather vane. This was the signing which signalled City could shed the quest just to survive in the Premier League and instead look to new, more ambitious horizons.
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When Paul Lambert’s collective were scratching around at Yeovil and Stockport the prospect of a Dutch international, one of Europe’s most prolific marskmen, donning the yellow and green was laughable.
But the tanned, good looking young man who held that Canaries’ scarf aloft in the summer of 2013 looked every inch the real deal.
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A flying header on his Premier League debut against Everton merely reinforced the feeling.
But by the time he had returned to earth in front of the River End little did we know he had already scaled the peak of his City career.
In the ensuing months the realisation his move had turned sour must have been tough but nothing compared to the life or death episode he would later confront, and too many in society face now.
Injury and then Chris Hughton’s reluctance to seemingly trust him, during a scrap that ended with the manager’s departure and Norwich’s relegation, meant we never saw the striker in full bloom.
But seeking to apportion blame is all rather subjective.
Was it the player himself? Was it the manager? Was it misguided recruitment or the turn of events in a campaign that started with so much promise before it dissolved into the familiar fight against the odds Daniel Farke and his players were also facing?
There is a story from the early days of van Wolfswinskel’s City spell that his now father-in-law, the great Johan Neeskens, he of the Dutch ‘total football’ era who dominated Europe with Ajax and reached two World Cup finals in the 1970s, declared after watching a handful of Norwich games the frontman would never score goals in that Hughton side.
A team set up routinely to be defensively solid and economical in the final third might be a formula that has served Chris Wilder and Sheffield United so well but it was clearly at odds with the way van Wolfswinkel plundered in Portugal. Certainly the way he re-discovered his scoring touch at Vitesse Arnhem and latterly FCB suggests he could have produced.
Yet broaden the focus and van Wolfswinkel’s ‘failure’ was part of a longer trend at Carrow Road. Only triple player-of-the-year Grant Holt and Teemu Pukki have risen above the mediocre to spearhead sustained success.
With perhaps Chris Martin and Cameron Jerome mentioned in despatches during promotion-winning campaigns.
From the Dutchman to Dennis Srbeny too many strikers failed to hit the spot at Carrow Road. Johan Elmander, Kyle Lafferty, Lewis Grabban and the curious case of Luciano Becchio, who could not stop scoring at Leeds but made just two league appearances for the Canaries.
“They never gave me an opportunity there and they never gave me the confidence a player needs. It was the complete opposite of Leeds,” he said this week. “It was like going from touching the sky with your hands at Leeds to the opposite extreme. It was very tough.”
For Becchio, read van Wolfswinkel.
It serves to underline how special Holt was and how precious Pukki has been, for all his struggles in front of goal during the first part of 2020, that looked to be a by-product of his injury niggles and heavy workload for club and country.
That must be the considered take given the manner he started his Premier League adventure and the way he plundered in the Chamnpionship.
Whether or not he gets to finish it this season, along with the rest of his team mates, depends on the on going fight against a virus which has impacted all our lives and changed society forever.
Football can offer hope and a renewed sense of community but when it returns the game will be different. As we all will.