My lifetime obsession in twelve hours, still.
First, some housekeeping: Michael Schumacher did drive car number 7, in 2011 and 2012 during his three-year comeback with Mercedes. Though he held his own as a man in his 40s, Schumacher never approached the heights (nor the foothills, really) of his greatest days with Ferrari. He also drove car 19 in 1992, which could fit here with the 24-hour clock allowance. While he did record his first F1 win that year it was, like his first title in 1994, before my time. Like I said, Schumacher is in, but at 1 or 3 – not here.
The best option I have in mind is Eric Cantona, the philosophising, collar-upturning, kung fu-kicking Manchester United forward. He was a forward for many other teams before Manchester United, and actually only spent five years with the club. That’s not very long to achieve legendary status, but that is exactly what King Eric did. Between 1992 and 1997, he was at the heart of the club’s revival and their dominance of the new Premier League, along with the fabled Class of ’92. United won the Premier League in four out of five seasons during Cantona’s stay, missing out only in the season in which he served a long ban for, you know … assaulting a fan. A complex figure, Eric Cantona. But man, could he play.
Despite my United obsession beginning over halfway through Cantona’s stay, somewhere around 1995, he made an indelible impact. His image is seared into my memory – the swagger, the flair, the collar … everyone in the school yard wore their collar like Cantona. The 1996 FA Cup final, and his late winning goal in the same (please do see below), is the first clear Manchester United memory I have. It taught me that United would never give up, that they would always find a way – a lesson they would reinforce again and again and again down the years.
The problem is, Eric Cantona is probably only the second most-important Manchester United player from my childhood. Like Alun Wyn Jones at 5, he is over-qualified, but I can’t commit. Number 7 stays open.
When I began writing, I had Ryan Jones and Filo Tiatia here. Two giant figures, more than worthy of sharing a place on the clock. But not this place, for there appeared a challenger. If this were a physical contest, it would be no contest. But it is not a physical contest, but one for the affections of my heart. In that, there is a diminutive, baby-faced Norwegian who stands as tall as anyone: Ole. Gunnar. Solskjær.
Another former Manchester United star from the 1990s, Solskjær combined a preternatural goal-scoring ability with an immensely likeable presence to become a beloved fan favourite at Old Trafford. I could spend some time outlining his United career, which saw him score 126 goals and win a boatload of trophies over an 11 year span, but I’m already wasting words. As fine a career as it was, his case for the clock is built on one single moment – if you have any idea who Ole Gunnar Solskjær is, you already know which.
I hope you watched that, because I’ll now be talking about it for several paragraphs.
Manchester United teams of that era were well-known for late goals and come-from-behind wins. That goal, that toe-poke stab from three yards out, completed what must be their most remarkable of all comebacks, on the grandest possible stage – sealing not only the Champions League title, but an historic treble.
I used to love those midweek European games. Even in my earliest recollections, I knew there was something different about them. The floodlights and flares in the crowd, the exotic opposition, the heightened tension – the entire atmosphere was elevated. The games used to end after my bedtime, but if got ready for bed during half-time I’d be allowed to stay up until the end. Those nights became, without doubt, some of my fondest childhood memories. That might sound like a dull childhood, but no – I had friends, I played outside, all that stuff. But I loved those Champions League nights, and I don’t doubt that they had a large role in my development of an almost debilitating obsession with sport.
The night of that final in Barcelona in 1999, I remember watching as an 11-year-old, upstairs in my bedroom on a television that was deeper than it was wide. I think I was at the perfect age to experience an event like that. I was young enough to be still genuinely childlike, yet just old enough to understand how rare an opportunity they had, to really get it – this was a big deal.
I can’t honestly recall my experience of the game in great detail, though it’s a fair guess that I was wearing my Manchester United pyjamas during he second half. I remember the slap-in-the-face of Bayern Munich’s early goal, but nothing of what must have been 85 torturous minutes that followed. The last few minutes, though … I don’t remember what I did – knowing myself, it’s more likely I sat wide-eyed and open-mouthed in amazement that that I just lost my **** like a kid should. But I remember the feeling vividly and completely. Every time I watch it again, every time I hear the commentary and the roar, I’m transported back – I am an 11-year-old boy in his room who, at once, cannot believe what he’s just seen and yet knew all along that it just had to happen.
I’m not good enough a writer to explain what that moment means to me yet. I hope someday I will be. I know it’s just a game, but man, it is not just a game. I guess you either get that or you don’t. The best I can do is to say that I find that old footage, the cry “and Solskjær has won it!“, I find it genuinely spine-tingling – electrifying. It makes me feel strange things in my chest. Right in the heart, it gets me. Every time, for ever and ever.
I didn’t have Ole Gunnar Solskjær in mind when I started this. He is not the one I alluded to after Eric Cantona – that guy is to come. I just hadn’t noticed the little guy wearing 20, hidden behind some colossal 8s. A glaring oversight, consider it corrected. Lock in another spot, because Solskjær has won it.
I have no outstanding candidate here. Neither Andy Cole nor any other Manchester United number 9 was of unusual significance to me, and Michael Schumacher never drove car 9 (last time I mention him, I swear). The same applies to 21, so I’ve come up empty on my go-to childhood memories.
The best possibility I have here is a representation of a Welsh number 9 rugby jersey, as worn by many fine players, and most finely of all by Gareth Edwards. By virtue of his talent and achievements, Edwards is easily worthy. He’s topped multiple polls and lists as the greatest Welsh player ever, and just the greatest player, ever. He also scored what is widely considered the greatest try ever (so good it has its own Wikipedia entry). He was also one of the first wave of players inducted into rugby’s new Hall of Fame. And by the way, that’s Sir Gareth to you. The guy is decorated, is what I’m saying.
The reason he may be particularly relevant to this exercise of mine is that he is from where I am from. Yes, the greatest rugby player ever, and I, both grew up in Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen in South Wales (no, that’s not how it you pronounce it – keep trying, outlander). I do not think I’m being swayed by the contempt of familiarity when I say that it is an incredibly unassuming place to have turned out such an esteemed individual (and Gareth Edwards – zing). Clearly, this is not like saying we’re both from London or even Swansea; GCG is a village of a few thousand, say government stats, and I can tell you it feels like less. I still find it so strange to look out the window of the house I grew up in, on a farm just outside the village itself, and see my old school and the houses of my friends and the fields and parks we played in, and to think that the greatest ever player came from here. People all over the world know and revere a man who came from here. It blows my mind, and if you knew this place, it would yours too.
The problem is that “he’s from where I’m from” seems … shallow. Unlike most of those mentioned so far, Edwards’s playing days were over before I was born. I’ve seen the highlights many times over, but with no direct memories of his career, I feel like I identify more with the idea of “the greatest ever rugby player, who comes from my town” than I do with Gareth Edwards himself. There’s no doubt that he’s worthy, but like others previously, I’m not certain he belongs.
We’re almost done. I say we make camp here and strike for the summit at dawn. Get some rest, and look for part four soon.