I was always going to get behind Antonio Valencia, as the prerequisite for most of my more intense player-crushes tends to be born out of empathy. Tony arrived as the underdog, coming into a team to play the role of punching bag for the fans, as their malcontent with a team recently stripped of two of it’s most swashiest of swashbucklers grew. He was faced with the insurmountable task of replacing the irreplaceable, yet replace he did – and how. The only place people were anticipating seeing Tony’s name was on the envelopes, ‘C/O Old Trafford’, demanding refunds on season tickets for a team that wasn’t as good as it used to be. It ended up in the Premier League’s team of the season.
We all know the rest of his football story to this point: a succesful rise to something near cult-status, via a broken ankle and a change of shirt number. However, it’s at this point, when having fought so hard to establish himself and when we might reasonably expect his legend to be continuing to grow, that instead we’ve witnessed Tony enter his winter of disconnect and it’s not entirely apparent when, or even if, he’s going to come out the other side.
With a player like Tony – a relatively unique kind of player who we actually know very little about – speculating about what might be amiss can prove difficult. One thing we think we do know about Tony is that he’s very ‘intense’ because he rarely smiles, and therefore we can say he’s lost a bit of his ‘intensity’. Another thing we think we know about Tony is that he’s very ‘shy’ (‘cus Fergie told us that he thought he was, and we’ve seen him in interviews and that being shy pretty convincingly) and therefore we can say that maybe he needs a confidence boost (what with being ‘shy’ and all). We don’t actually know though if either of those two things are entirely true. If Tony wasn’t a United player, and we hadn’t seen him in so many interviews and the like, we might be more inclined to speculate that he was in fact ‘moody’ or ‘arrogant’.
We project our own interpretations of players’ behaviour, and then gather up those interpretations we agree with (or the ones from those with the loudest voices) and seek to make the subjective opinions of the many form a quasi-co-opted objective one: one we kind of all end up sharing. Here’s something: I always assumed United players were Socialists – the Universe having handily colour coded their shirts to reinforce my unfounded surrealist fantasy. I did also used to think that all dogs were boys and all cats were girls. The truth is, until emotion gets the better of a player, and the inanity-mask of their basic media training momentarily slips, we rarely get to see what players are genuinely like. Exhibit A: Ryan Giggs.
One paradox of fandom is that we will always seek out the good in our own players, yet rarely afford the opposition the same courtesy. We vehemently support the baddies in our own team and treat those echoing their behaviour within the opposition with contempt. A dive, or knee-high tackle from one of our own players can be seen, not as tantamount to treason, but as a quirk of their roguish sense of bon vivant. You have to do this, in order to give yourself permission to like a player, so that you can then support them. There is little doubt though, that if the likes of Roy Keane or perhaps Nemanja Vidic had played for other teams, we would view them very differently. To this end, in knowing very little about Tony – even less than the half-truths we know about most other players – I’m presented with something near to a blank canvas to paint loving strokes all over.
In my head, in a ‘modern football’ sense, Tony is the embodiment of the introverted anti-hero: reluctant to take the spotlight, quiet, honest and morally good, a regular poster boy for the ‘Against Modern Football’ movement, and I absolutely love him for it. I need him to represent this, no matter how little of it is actually based in reality, because I need reasons to keep on loving football where very few exist. The fact that he’s also, when playing at his best, one of the most powerful players to have hugged the right touchline, is secondary, but a nice bonus nonetheless. For me, the potential decline of Antonio Valencia that we’re witnessing represents much more than just a very good player passing through.
I’ve spent the past fifteen years harbouring fantasies of Eric’s return, but however much you really want players to always be there, they won’t. Players can just fade. Players can decide they’ve given all they can to a club and simply move on. Equally – and more likely – the club can take that decision out of the player’s hands. I’d really like it if Tony could make whatever steps necessary to rediscover his form and stick around a bit longer, not for the inconvenience of having to find another potential suitor to hang an identity on, and then in turn to hang my hopes on, but because I’d miss him.