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Apr 16, 2009

The loyal few fading away

There is no loyalty in football anymore. It is the sort of statement that is aired whenever, as happens with great regularity, a club dispenses of its manager, or when one of football's nomads adds yet another employer to an already extensive CV. Yet it is not entirely true. Virtually every one of Europe's major clubs can produce a recent example of faithfulness and fidelity over an extended period.

While Craig Bellamy, Marcus Bent and Mido have, to borrow one of football's favourite clichés from the 1970s, accumulated more clubs than Jack Nicklaus, there are rather more decorated players who are content to stay. Manchester United boast three such: Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs. Only Bill Foulkes and Sir Bobby Charlton have been selected more often than the two Englishmen, while the Welsh Giggs could become the first man to appear 800 times for United as soon as next Wednesday.

While Liverpool's club records belong to players of an earlier generation, they also boast footballers with such dedication. It is improbable that anyone will exceed Ian Callaghan's tally of 857 games but, within two years, Jamie Carragher could pass the 665 appearances that both Ray Clemence and Emlyn Hughes mustered to become his closest challenger. It is feasible that, when both retire, Carragher and Steven Gerrard will occupy the podium places for appearances at Anfield.

Nor are such feats of endurance confined to England. Only three men have played more games for Barcelona than the current captain, Carles Puyol, and one of them is his deputy, Xavi. Raul is both Real Madrid's record goalscorer and likely to overhaul Manuel Sanchis' total of 712 appearances. Two Italian strikers have already cemented their place in their respective clubs' roll of honour. Alessandro del Piero has managed both most games and goals for Juventus, while Francesco Totti has a sizeable lead in both categories for Roma.

Javier Zanetti, besides winning more caps for Argentina than anyone else, has overtaken Giacinto Facchetti, meaning only Giuseppe Bergomi has appeared more frequently for Internazionale. Most records in Milan, however, tend to be in the possession of one man. More than 24 years since his AC Milan debut, the greatest servant of his generation to any club, Paolo Maldini, may reach 900 games before he finally bows out.

A lifelong allegiance need not be an anachronism. The reasons, beyond a steadfastness, a continued determination to excel and a willingness to play alongside and under whomever the club brings in, may be several. Such players have a combination of status and security; the footballing and financial rewards such clubs can offer mean they should enjoy job satisfaction, accompanied by a lifestyle that, especially for the home-grown players among them, they are unlikely to enjoy elsewhere. Most are in positions of responsibility and Raul and Totti, for instance, may not be afforded the same influence by any other employer. Sentiment may play a part, too, in extending the lucrative contracts of deserving veterans.

But the consequence is that most of Europe's dominant clubs have a man who has achieved an iconic standing as well as requiring the history books to be updated. Of the exceptions, Sepp Maier and Gerd Muller's achievements for Bayern Munich may never be bettered. Arsenal's emphasis on youth largely precludes records for durability, but a comparatively recent departure, Thierry Henry, proved their most prolific goalscorer and stayed in London for eight years.

Chelsea, however, provide an exception. Despite Frank Lampard's best efforts, their club records - belonging to Ron Harris and Bobby Tambling respectively - are unlikely to be surpassed. It is a reason for believing they have been more reliant than their rivals on buying success.

But just as the two longest-serving managers in England are at two of the foremost clubs, Manchester United and Arsenal, it is revealing that few players enjoy a decade of first-team football outside the elite. Tom Finney, Jimmy Armfield and Jimmy Dickinson, distinguished internationals and one-club men all, are unlikely to be emulated by the current generation. Nor is it probable that, as eight of Don Revie's Leeds side did, the majority of a team could each make 500 appearances without seeking a transfer or being sold. Both that landmark and the distinction of representing Newcastle more than anyone else were within Shay Given's sure grasp before he tired of their underachievement and moved to Manchester City. That blend of ambition and the economic advantages of richer clubs may indicate why a modern-day Armfield, Finney or Dickinson could be plucked from Blackpool, Preston or Portsmouth.

Player power, including such legislation as the Bosman ruling which renders their contracts of less advantage to clubs lower in the ladder, has exerted an impact there. But the concentration of talent at the top has been coupled with the resolve that leads to permanence for individuals from Milan to Madrid and Manchester. They have fewer counterparts nowadays at more impoverished outfits.

Footballers such as John McDermott, who played 754 games for Grimsby, and Matt Le Tissier, who resisted the overtures of much of the top flight to stay at Southampton, are very much the exceptions. With both now retired, that kind of loyalty may already be an outdated concept.

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