My lifetime obsession in twelve hours, continued.
If you missed part one, see here for the intro and numbers one through three. Once you’ve done that, and absolutely not before, read on for part two.
The retired number plaques of the New York Yankees’ Monument Park are collectively one half of the parentage of this enfant irrelevant, and though I don’t especially care about the Yankees they are as iconic as it comes. So it’s only right they get a shot at the clock.
There is no better candidate in Yankees history than the Iron Horse, first baseman Lou Gehrig. His 17-season Yankees career is remarkable enough without further context – between 1923 and 1939 he amassed a .340 batting average, 493 home runs, seven All-Star selections, two American League MVP awards, and six World Series wins. But Gehrig is perhaps best known for his long-standing record of 2,130 consecutive games played (finally surpassed 56 years later by Cal Ripken, Jr.), the manner in which the streak was cut short by the onset of terminal illness and his subsequent powerful address at Yankee Stadium, in which he faced down his devastating diagnosis and proclaimed himself “the luckiest man on the face of the Earth”.
He was, as some small mercy, honoured while he was still around to appreciate it, having his number retired by the Yankees and being elected to the Hall of Fame via special election before the end of 1939. Small mercy is all it was, though – Gehrig died on June 2, 1941, less than two years after that Yankee Stadium speech.
Gehrig’s number 4 was the first retired not only by the Yankees, but in all of baseball, making him (among many more illustrious things) in some way the grandfather of this endeavour.
With all that said … sorry Mr Gehrig, but this spot is taken. You were incredible, but it’s not you, it’s me. I mean it’s actually me – I’m putting my number 4 on the clock. Who am I to put myself ahead of Lou Gehrig? I’m the guy making the clock. I mean, I don’t feel good about it. Certainly not after writing those last few paragraphs. But my game, my rules … my uncomfortable sense of inadequacy.
I played football for the Cwmamman United AFC for six years, a defensive stalwart (that’s right, stalwart) of the junior teams from the under-9s to the under-14s. I wasn’t very good, but I was usually there. That can count for a lot – twice I played in games at which I’d only turned up to watch when some talented slacker didn’t show. At one of those, I earned my only Man of the Match award from the local paper. And the only other time the paper cared to mention me, I was due to play but a lack of numbers meant I was pressed into emergency duty on the wing. Released from the shackles of a rigidly flat back four, I quite literally ran with the opportunity. I dribbled down the left flank with such energy, such verve, that no-one seemed to notice that I gave away possession almost every single time I had the ball. That summed me up – I tried hard, I was always there in a pinch, and I mostly had fun.
But my crowning moment, the zenith of my footballing career … came in just another training session, in which I was absolutely sensational for a single Thursday evening. I was like Claude Makélélé crossed with Andrés Iniesta, like a Paul Scholes who could tackle. None could run by me, nor pass around me, and when I went forward I could just as easily go through defenders as around them. It was incredible. But it was only training. So my crowning moment that mattered was the time I scored a goal – my one goal in six years.
It came during my under-11s season. It was a home game against weak opposition from Giant’s Grave … or maybe Cimla, or Resolven, or Neath Boys Club B. I went up from defence for an early corner and opened the scoring with a neat side-foot volley from the back post, just placing it back across the goal into the top corner. I was denied a satisfying, net-bulging finish as the keeper actually caught the ball inside the goal, but it was nonetheless clear and uncontroversial, and it was mine – I had scored a goal. I made some small celebration, maybe clapped my hands and pumped a fist, but that was all as I turned and jogged back to my defensive position, aiming for stoic and probably failing to keep a giddy little grin from my face.
We went on to win in a 10-1 thumping, but my first goal was the talk of the changing room afterwards. It would be the only official goal I’d score, but it would be enough. I scored plenty of other goals, in training and on the playground. And without doubt, I belonged at the back – I lacked the finer skill to be at the other end scoring goals, but through sheer bloody-mindedness I could contribute in defence. But if I’d never scored just that one single goal in a real, competitive match, I think I might look back at my entire time playing football, and thus my whole childhood, and see it as somehow lesser. That one goal, then – that little side-foot volley to the top corner – it enriches and validates my entire youth.
The reason I’m prattling on about this one stupid goal is that I was, in that game, wearing the number 4 jersey. Particularly in the early years, we wore a wide range of entirely incoherent kits – whatever was clean, and whatever fit us at that age. On a good day, the coach might accommodate our requests for certain numbers, but as often as not we got whatever was on the back of the first shirt he threw us. I must have worn all the colours, in combinations that were never meant to be, and all the numbers at some point. But on the day I scored, I wore 4 – a blocky, white number 4 on a dark blue jersey over white shorts and dark blue socks. It’s been my “lucky number”, for want of a better term, ever since. My talisman, maybe. That is the emblem of my tiny moment of glory, and that is what goes on the clock.
Would you believe it, Michael Schumacher is a candidate again. He drove car number 5 on several occasions, including during his first championship year in 1994, and later during his thrilling duel with Jacques Villeneuve in 1997. However, 1994 pre-dates my attention, while the ending to 1997 was … not my favourite. Car number 5 is not how I best remember Schumacher. He’ll go on at either 1 or 3, which leaves number 5 … open.
Now is the time to introduce the last emotional over-investment in grown men playing games I haven’t yet mentioned: the Ospreys. In the catalogue of my sports romances, they are like the first serious girlfriend … except we’re still together. Shh, don’t tell the Cubs. Unlike Manchester United or the Chicago Cubs, the Ospreys are actually local to me, playing their home games at the Liberty Stadium in Swansea and representing the area that could roughly be described as West Glamorgan. They play rugby union, did I mention? Now, in rugby, each number represents a specific position, rather than being assigned to an individual player. So I’m considering a generic Ospreys number 5 here to represent all who have worn it, but with particular consideration to current captain Alun Wyn Jones.
He’s certainly the kind of figure worthy of a place on the dial, not only for his accolades – three league titles , an Anglo-Welsh cup, three Six Nations titles (two Grand Slams), 198 Ospreys appearances, 102 Wales caps, six Lions caps across two tours, including the last as captain in the series-clinching final test match of the 2013 Australia tour, the guy has accolades alright, so many that he’s ruined this sentence, and he’s not done – but the relentless manner in which he has achieved them. Alun Wyn Jones marauds across a rugby field, disrupting and denying the opposition at every turn.
But there are a couple of marks against him. Firstly, Jones is still playing, and I’m hesitant to include anyone before they’re done competing. Secondly, Jones also often wears number 4, perhaps more often than he does 5 (4 and 5 together make up the “second row”, and are also known as locks). This might seem like a technicality, but it’s exactly the kind of thing that would nag at me. With some similar candidates coming later, Jones is not a certainty despite clearly being over-qualified. The 5 spot stays open for now.
Want to take a peek behind the curtain? Of course you do.
At the start of this exercise I drew up a short list, and a shortlist, of potential candidates at each position. Most spots had a couple of names, maybe three, maybe just the one. This one was blank – I had nobody at number 6. But in the course of writing, an outstanding candidate emerged from the shadows at number 8, which allowed me to move a couple of versatile fellows that I’d already written about from there to here, where they fit equally well. Wanna meet ’em?
Rugby union’s blindside flanker (number 6) and number eight (… number 8) are distinct positions, but they share plenty in common – both require power, industry and raw bulk. Ospreys pair Ryan Jones and Filo Tiatia, two of the region’s finest, brought all that and no small amount of skill to both positions.
Jones played 11 seasons with the Ospreys from 2004 to 2014, during which he was an always exemplary figure, displaying power, skill and a prodigious work-rate. He was the captain of the 2007-08 Anglo-Welsh Cup and 2009-10 Celtic League winning teams, as well as an important part of three further league titles in a rich period in the organisation’s short history. He also had an outstanding international career for Wales, playing a role in four Six Nations championship wins (of which three were Grand Slams). He was the captain of the 2008 Grand Slam team, and lead Wales on a total of 33 occasions – a record until he was passed by Sam Warburton in 2015. As if that wasn’t enough, he was also a Lions tourist in 2005 – a shambolic tour of New Zealand on which Jones excelled, being one of very few Lions to return home with his reputation enhanced.
Filo Tiatia was a twice-capped All Black, and had a solid career in New Zealand and Japan before arriving at the Ospreys in 2006, aged 35. Over the next four years he would defy his age and become a cult hero at the region thanks to an all-action, no-bull**** playing style (check the video). In all, he played for the region 99 times and was central in three league titles and the 2007-08 Anglo-Welsh Cup victory. Following the end of his playing career, he remained with the organisation as a coach for an additional year, before graduating to a more senior position with his former team in Japan. He is sometimes spoken of in almost mythic tones, and there still exists a hope amongst supporters that he will someday return. If ever in doubt, and in need of guidance, an Osprey need only ask: “What would Filo do?”
Finally, I want to mention Jerry Collins. Unlike Jones and Tiatia, he didn’t feature at number eight for the Ospreys, so he wasn’t in the original write-up for that spot. Now that I’ve moved them to number 6 – his regular blindside flanker position – I can’t pass by without including Collins.
After a stellar 48-cap international career with New Zealand, Collins finished his career in Europe and Japan, including a two year spell with the Ospreys between 2009 and 2011. Despite a relatively short time with the region, he made such an impact. Playing in his trademark confrontational, brutish style, he was a major part of the 2009-10 Magners League win in his first season. Away from the field he was, by literally every account I’ve ever heard, an absolute gentleman.
Tributes poured in from all over, the most poignant possibly being the Haka performed at the crash site by some of his former New Zealand teammates. The Ospreys honoured Collins at their next home game at the beginning of the following season. As numbers represent positions rather than players, they will not be retired permanently in rugby union. But for that day, neither the Ospreys nor their opponents, Munster, wore the number 6. Each team’s blindside flanker played without a number, while an Ospreys number 6 jersey was lain on the pitch during the pre-game ceremonies. I wish I’d been there, as I usually would have been, to be able to relay to you a first-hand account. Incongruously, I was away having the time of my life in Chicago, being an idiot tourist and seeing the Cubs for the first time. So you and I both will just have to look at the pictures and imagine, but it looked pretty perfect to me.
Like the Cubs, the Ospreys have to be represented. Some day Alun Wyn Jones will retire, and I’ll have a tough choice to make. Until then, I can imagine no better standard bearers than Ryan Jones, Filo Tiatia and Jerry Collins.
And that’s the half – everybody take five and grab an energy gel, and check back soon for part three.