If football, as the comparison is often drawn, is anything like gladiatorial combat, then my journey over the past eight days has been an odyssey through the various stages of a great warrior’s life.
At the tiny, ill-attended ground of Abingdon Town from the Hellenic League (the 9th level of football in England) we see the small boys aping what they have seen grown men do. Here they toil with inadequate facilities, a pitch which resembles not the fine turf of the larger arenas they have seen and are striving to get to, but more like the ploughed fields which surround the sumptuous abodes of the players they are trying to emulate. This was like watching children play with wooden swords; a few minor scratches are inflicted, moves that they have seen in the bigger amphitheatres are tried (often to fail miserably), and bragging rights over other minor teams are won and lost.
It is places like Abindgon that feed the gladiatorial training schools of that found at Garforth Town near Leeds. High on the windswept and cruelly inhospitable moors, players that have excelled at lower league football are pitted against each other in the Unibond First Division North. The elements certainly dictate the style and level of football possible, and a raging wind direct from the Urals ensures the fan base is composed of the most loyal and/or foolhardy bunch of dyed-in-the-wool supporters. A kindly benefactor in the shape of Simon Clifford has grasped the reins at Garforth and, rather like Oliver Reed’s character in the movie Gladiator, has turned the organisation into one of the finest feeder clubs in the country. Let it not be forgotten (and there is no danger of this) that the colossus that is Micah Richards is a product of this tiny outfit.
To continue the parallel with the Hollywood picture mentioned above, the provincial arena in which the potential gladiators first come up against opposition that is worthy of their talents is at clubs like Crewe Alexandra. With a suffix evocative of that city in Egypt that surely once saw the crowds roar at bloodshed under Roman rule, Crewe is a true test of a player’s capabilities. If he isn’t good enough he will be exposed, yet unlike in Caesar’s day he will not be run through with a sword, simply thrown to the lions that are the lower divisions. To fail here doesn’t mean a physical death, but rejection can mean a return to leagues where once mighty warriors such as Socrates once was for Brazil are turned out as a novelty act and asked to perform for a brief moment in the spotlight they used to love and still crave.
For those that succeed in the provincial sides, the chances of glory. Players such as Dean Ashton (the hero of the Gresty Road stand for five memorable years) inevitably move on to the bright lights of bigger and frankly better things. Many have failed, few succeed. The Premiership is the pinnacle of any right-minded footballer, and the finely honed specimens on show in this league are so like the gladiators of ancient times that the comparison is uncanny. Note the muscles bulging from shirts barely containing the huge frames of these giants amongst men. Watch the ladies swoon as they remove their shirts in celebration (surely a move designed solely to show the millions watching that they have scaled a physical peak the viewers can only imagine).
And to complete the analogy, to come a full and perfect circle, we enter the modern day Coliseum that is Old Trafford. Hear the crowd roar in anticipation as the warriors enter the arena to seriously uplifting music, baying for blood before weapons have even been drawn.
Combat begins under the watchful glare of the imperious Ferguson. Put him in a toga and laurel wreath and you have a modern day Caesar. Tentatively at first the protagonists feel out each others’ strengths and weaknesses with probing passes and half-serious tackles. But soon we see the main characters taking charge with Wayne Rooney in the Russell Crowe role, directing his troops with unerring accuracy. On his signal they unleash hell and break down the opponents in front of them mercilessly and completely. By the end of the skirmish, the other team is left with nothing to give, losing a member on the way as his hotheadedness leads to his own downfall (much like the keen young gladiator who attacks without seeing the upthrust of the more experienced fighter and impales himself). The players look to Ferguson for approval, and with a nod of his head as opposed to a signal with his thumb, their Caesar condemns another team to the sword.
If football had been invented by Caesar, it would look an awful lot like the league structure of today. If football had been invented by Caesar, he would oversee the greatest team in the land. If football had been invented by Caesar it would be the game we know and love in the modern age, but maybe with a bit more blood and some lions.