Memories of a golden age
Nostalgia's not what it used to be. Not in English football, anyway, where it doubles up as history lesson and current affairs. As first Paul Scholes and then Thierry Henry made comebacks, Manchester United and Arsenal no longer need to reach into the video vault to revisit their past.
They are moves that have been greeted with gentle mockery, pertinent analysis about the plight of the respective clubs but, overwhelmingly, a sense of delight. In both cases, a feelgood factor was restored at a stroke. Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger clearly have a sideline in PR.
A rather lacklustre Arsenal performance against Leeds instead set the scene for Henry's decisive intervention, while a magnificent Manchester derby seemed a suitable stage for Scholes' second coming. In each case, it was to a backdrop of goodwill that extended far beyond each player's natural constituency. In part, that is a welcome recognition of a greatness that transcends club loyalties. And, without doubt, there is the element of the unexpected: those who thought their chance had passed to see Henry and Scholes in Arsenal and United red respectively are reprieved.
Their welcome shows the paying public's emotional investment in them. They, and contemporaries and colleagues such as Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Gary Neville, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Frank Lampard, Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard, stand apart from many of the younger generation. There is a great narrative to the career of each, one that remains compelling even as some enter extra time. Each has shown a steadfastness that renders him the antithesis of, say, Carlos Tevez; not all multi-millionaires are perceived as mercenaries.
Scholes' allegiance to United is a lifelong affair while Henry's description of himself as an Arsenal fan rings true. Career-defining relationships with their respective managers complete the picture. These are moves with a meaning many appreciate.
Yet nostalgia is always a more welcome diversion when the past is preferable to the present. For Arsenal, a reunion with an Invincible lets them imagine their glorious heyday; for United the reappearance of a participant in three of the past four Champions League finals helps them overlook this season's group stage exit.
Thoughts may turn to 2004, to 2008, even to 1999 - years that, despite the endearing unpredictability of this season's Premier League, represented more of a high point. A slip in standards may account for the reappearance of the veterans, and English clubs' fortunes on the continent have entered a decline, perhaps reflecting a wider malaise in the country. It is a climate to look back wistfully, amid a sense that the best times are behind us and that the next generation have been dealt a worse hand than their parents.
Arguably it ties in with a wider feeling in British life. There is a tendency to reflect upon what has been lost - a preoccupation, especially among the right-wing press, with an imaginary golden age. Football, so often distanced from the rest of society, especially its economic pressures, can reflect it.
Germany, with its conflicted past, tends to be more forward-thinking, as some youthful club and national sides indicate; Italy has a culture where experience is valued, the politicians are often pensioners and the footballers their sporting equivalent. It is a reason not merely the great Paolo Maldini but also mere mortals such as Alessandro Costacurta and Pietro Vierchowod were still pottering about in defences in their forties.
At Old Trafford and Emirates Stadium alike, the struggles of their juniors help account for the returns of Scholes and Henry. In each case, a big-match temperament was deemed enough of an advantage to outweigh concerns about physical decay. Technical ability helps, too.
But so does the wider context. Neither Ferguson nor Wenger is a fan of the January transfer window, the United manager being particularly vocal about inflated prices and the unavailability of elite players. The market has taken a turn for the worse, with prices for emerging talents escalating at a time when the super-rich have pushed fees up for everyone else. Such bargains as there are may be found among the older end of the spectrum; indeed, the thirty-somethings Scott Parker and Craig Bellamy, himself in a second spell at Liverpool, are among the best buys the top clubs have made this season.
The Major League Soccer season is a factor, too, allowing an eight-week opportunity to borrow from football's Bank of America. With Landon Donovan already at Everton and Aston Villa loaning Robbie Keane, Arsenal are one of three beneficiaries of American aid. United found an answer closer to home, Ferguson delving into his coaching staff (and thankfully overlooking Mike Phelan) to find Scholes.
For both Wenger and Ferguson, it is a cheap, quick fix - a morale-boosting blend of sentiment and pragmatism. The short-termism involved makes each sighting of Scholes or Henry the more cherished. It alters attitudes, making the majority more forgiving of their failings of players in their dotage who have returned to aid their beloved clubs in times of need. In an often vitriolic culture, it makes many show their softer side and revisit the values of an earlier era.