x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Heroes frozen in time

Football players from the past are well remembered as their history lives on in statue form.

Manchester United's golden trio - the 1968 European Cup winners Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best - are remembered in statue form outside Old Trafford.
Manchester United's golden trio - the 1968 European Cup winners Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best - are remembered in statue form outside Old Trafford.

It has just gone noon at Celtic Park. In old Scottish parlance, this is what one could call a 'dreich' Saturday in December. It is also another agitated sort of match day for Celtic, the Scottish champions. In less than three hours, they will host Heart of Midlothian in the Premier League. The rain falls almost serenely in Glasgow. Fans scurry in and out of the club shop. More than 50,000 of them will be bristling later inside the stadium. A few thousand have made the effort to get here early. A sense of anticipation swirls under the leaden sky.

At the front of this cavernous arena, a sizable monument is shrouded in a giant piece of nylon. It has a number seven etched on it. All ages, and all sorts are in attendance. It is standing room only. A photographer suddenly spots what looks like a giant leprechaun waving a flag. It proclaims the words: "There's only one Jinky." They are here to pay tribute to the winger Jimmy Johnstone. There is no space for limpness on such an afternoon. This dear green place has not been the same without him.

Johnstone was part of Celtic's most celebrated era, playing in the club's European Cup-winning side of 1967. He was voted the club's greatest player ahead of men of a silvery pedigree, such as Kenny Dalglish, Jimmy McGrory, Henrik Larsson or a Charlie Tully. He died in 2006, dragged down by the debilitating motor neurone disease. Johnstone once recorded his own version of 'Dirty Old Town' with the Simple Minds lead singer Jim Kerr. It blares out from a loud speaker with Kerr delivering the line, "I watched Jimmy Johnstone set the night on fire". Today there is only rain, but a cloak of nostalgia lightens the mood. The former parliamentarian and British Home Secretary turned Celtic chairman John Reid, and Billy McNeill, the captain of the European Cup winners or the Libson Lions as they more fearsomely recalled, regale us with tales of Johnstone the man.

His fire is reignited when the statue is finally revealed to his relatives, and a widespread ardent and affectionate family of applauding fans. Johnstone has gone, but his statue will act as a memento. It has cost the club over £60,000, but its worth is suddenly priceless. Unrestricted by time, he has Brother Walfrid, the club's founder in 1888, for a next door neighbour. The former England manager Sir Alf Ramsay once described Johnstone as "world class". He and Sir Bobby Robson have their own sculptures at Ipswich Town.

There are similar monuments up and down the UK, and in other parts of the world game's spiralling community. Across Glasgow at Rangers, the club's greatest player John Greig has been set in time. He looks even more uncompromising as an immovable object. The statute is a unique phenomenon. Myths, folklore and legends are encased in statues. A special place is reserved for players and figures who made a telling difference to their clubs.

The history of a football club is what defines it. Without a storied past, football clubs mean little. Every club has their special individuals. Some are alive, yet find themselves cast in bronze. A sense of community is everything, a sense of belonging even greater. Statues in many ways represent the fans. Shrines have been erected to Sir Stanley Matthews in Stoke and Sir Tom Finney in Preston. Two English towns that tell of a glorious, industrious past in football.

The Charlton brothers, Jackie and a teary Sir Bobby, could be found at the BBC sports personality of the year award in Liverpool last week At the same time, Sir Bobby was in Manchester, outside of Old Trafford as part of the club's trinity statue alongside Denis Law and George Best. It was unveiled in May, 40 years after their side defeated Benfica to win United's first European Cup. Jackie presented his brother with a lifetime achievement award. Members of England's World Cup winners of 1966 and United's European winners looked on.

Nobby Stiles looks the same, but the former England captain Bobby Moore passed away in the early 1990s. Cancer can no longer get to him. Moore's spirit lives on, and continues to be prompt recollections of his greatness as a player. Moore's stature as the only man to lead England to a World Cup win can be discovered in his statue near West Ham United's Upton Park ground, and more recently at the new Wembley. He has stood the test of time.

A trip to a game can be as much a pilgrimage for fans to adore idols, and learn about them. Fulham have recently paid their own tribute to Johnny Haynes. Alan Shearer has a bar dedicated to him at Newcastle, but as yet does not boast a statue. Plans have recently gone on hold, but at least Jackie Milburn is standing firm for United fans to behold. 'Wor Jackie' is commemorated at St James' Park for his record contribution of 238 goals. The replica of Stan Cullis at Wolverhampton Wanderers is said to be one of the finest statues in the UK.

Johnstone's fellow Scots, the late Billy Bremner, also a fiery redhead, and Sir Matt Busby continue to command affection. Bremner is revered at Leeds United. Sir Matt Busby has pride of place on Manchester United's mantelpiece at Old Trafford. Once their manager, he continues to remain close to Best, Charlton and Law. At Anfield, the Scottish manager Bill Shankly is immortal. His success in managing Liverpool in the 1960s and 1970s and his working-class roots are reflected by the comment "he made the people happy" on the statue plinth. He will never walk alone. Steven Gerrard will do well to be remembered in such a sense.

Back at Celtic Park, and we find that Johnstone now sits on a polished granite base. He was well under 6ft. Someone jokes that he would not believe how tall he has become. The cult of the statue allows such figures to walk tall forever, the untimely pall of death suddenly helpless in its ability to cut down a club's loved ones. dkane@thenational.ae