In the run-up to the kick-off of Euro 2012, Ashley Young has rather ineluctably become central to England’s slim hopes of success. The mechanics of his graduation are rather complex, although it’s clear that injuries, Wayne Rooney’s suspension and the nation’s dragged-out realisation that Stewart Downing is never going to discover a proclivity for van Hanegem-like assists all play a part. It’s certainly the case that he presents something of an enigma, although – to give credit where it’s due – he’s one of England’s more capable attacking players. What, then, is the quiddity of Ashley Young?
Young appears taller than his 5’9″, giving him the look of an echt latter-day all-round forward like Karim Benzema or Cristiano Ronaldo. At Manchester United, he plays on whichever wing Alex Ferguson feels will benefit most from his versatile ability to switch between orthodox line-hugging and modernistic channel-bothering. For England – as was often the case at his previous clubs Aston Villa and Watford – he plays an ambiguous role which combines the duties of a No 10 and an attacking midfielder. He can shoot, cross and take a mean free-kick; in addition to these skills, his pace and footwork make him a difficult opponent for full-backs and central defenders alike.
This description would seem to identify Young as one of the most exciting players in the Premier League. Yet one finds it hard to imagine a man, forty years hence, staring wistfully into a pint glass and wondering why they no longer make them like Ashley. He isn’t the type of player whose talent sells tickets on its own. In fact, despite his ticking of most of the boxes in the ‘essential’ category of the job spec for explosive modern forwards, there’s something hugely uninspiring about the thought of him being taken as England 2012’s sole offering in the field of the mercurial. His is an ossified form of footballing volatility; a robotic, rationalised version of unpredictability.
In this, he carries traces of his London Orbital origins. Stevenage isn’t quite J.G. Ballard country, but it’s of comparable geographic and demographic profile, and one can perhaps see in Young’s highly-rehearsed trickery a faint image of Ballard’s representations of utterly reified pleasure. At a given moment in time – usually around the hour mark – he will slither past a defender, arresting the attention of a listless crowd and imbuing the match with a spurious sense of improvisatory risk-taking. Traditionally, wingers and playmakers have been rebels, often engaged in battles of will with coaches who try and subsume them within stifling systems. By contrast, Young offers a mirage version of the anti-systematic which – slightly paradoxically – enforces regularity.
Synthesising sociopolitical analysis with Hollywood ephemera, cultural theorist Mark Fisher‘s book Capitalist Realism invoked the ‘37 pieces of flair‘ scene from Mike Judge’s Office Space to think out the ways in which contemporary workplace politics turn not on any obvious form of coercion but on a soaking-up of troublesome libido with so-called ‘fun’ activities. Young’s circumscribed trickery seems to conform to a similar pattern: he compensates for a lack of genuine invention – not only for England, but for an increasingly predictable United – with simulations of the real thing.
Posted by Joe Kennedy