On a December evening in 2010, Andy Gray was in a studio, possibly somewhere in London, discussing Manchester City’s recent defeat against Everton at home. It was brought to Gray’s notice that Lionel Messi had, as was usual then, turned on the magic for Barcelona. His response is now part of football folklore.
“He would struggle on a cold night at The Britannia.”
It is a genius statement – irreverent, filled with equal amounts of comic intent and pure English hubris.
That thought had a background, though. Casting doubts over whether a player from a foreign league, and often of a foreign nationality, can endure the 100 miles-an-hour royal rumble of English football is more common than necessary or sensible. Sometimes it’s the muscularity, other times it’s the speed, most times both. Last season, there were similar murmurs over Erling Haaland’s ball-reception, which rose in pitch after the Community Shield, before crash-landing to silence once City were done with their game at West Ham United.
In 2010, when referees were a little more forgiving towards contact on the pitch, it wasn’t hard to imagine an ex-pro thinking about certain physical attributes as imperative to endure football in England. The match Gray was discussing before pausing to reflect on Messi is a perfect example of what his comment implied. City had 68.2% possession that evening, leading to 33 shots, but went down 0-2 before twenty minutes had passed. City had the aesthetics, Everton had the dog.
This City team was just about taking the shape of a side worth buying expensive season tickets for. The previous season, they finished fifth in the league and were knocked out, hilariously, by Stoke in the fifth round of the FA Cup. In a big summer transfer window, they found two players in Spain to help them take the next step. Both were on the pitch against Everton that evening.
One was Yaya Toure, evidently a technical and athletic specimen. Nevermind doubts, the Premier League was excited about him. He felt and played like a Football Manager regen. The other, who it seemed was fodder for ex-English pros to tear into at the first sign of doubt, was David Silva.
Most didn’t know enough about him, although they should have. Silva was already a fixture in the Spanish setup. He lit up their triumphant Euro 2008 campaign and was one of a handful of shining lights during a tumultuous time for Valencia. Pep Guardiola, then-Barcelona manager and Europe’s most famous connoisseur of creative midfielders, was smitten.
There is a common misconception that blankets our perception of players like David Silva. For all their creative magic, one doesn’t immediately associate the brutal part of physicality to them. You don’t think of them as players who would, in Roy Keane’s golden words, crash into someone. But David Silva would. Time and again. He would lunge into tackles on soggy pitches if it meant he had a chance of getting the ball back for his team. He would sprint from one byline to the other in the 87th minute of a game that his team is winning 4-1, no question. Silva embodied most, if not all, of the qualities teammates, coaches, and fans seek from their midfielders.
And yet, he lived on the margins of hype and glow. To watch Silva play was to witness a watered down, muted version of football. Turn, pass, move. Isn’t that what coaches teach six-year-old kids? One would think it is easy to achieve that in parks and pick-up games. David Silva was doing it inside the most physically taxing environment in the sport. Over so many years of watching him multiple times every week, it would take a photographic memory to think of too many moments where Silva grabbed the camera and said “look at me”. He had all the ability, and could turn it on on a whim, like that pass to Edin Dzeko against Manchester United or the goal against Blackpool, but he used them for effect, never for showmanship.
Silva turned out to be the metronome around which Manchester City’s team wrote their modern symphonies. In his first season, City won the FA Cup; in his second, their first of seven league titles in eleven years. Over a full decade in England, many came and went – managers, players, superstars, battlers – but Silva kept doing his thing. Football itself changed tempo, teams changed tack, but he always found a pocket of space to turn, pass, and move.
Even after he moved back to Spain aged 34, he could churn out performances that left jaws on the floor. Against a young, vibrant Real Madrid, with a young and vibrant Real Sociedad team around him, Silva put on a show that had his teammates purring. Ageing, slowing, a little rickety post multiple knee injuries, but still holding enough magic wands to make your evening. You hear his teammates speak about him, and you can see that they were awestruck. They had played against some of the world’s best at Madrid and Barcelona for years, and yet, there was something so unique about David Silva. It was simple, joyous, and oddly innocuous.
His international career is the biggest testament to that tendency. When you think of that incredible Spain team from 2008-14, one that could send two squads full of midfielders alone to major tournaments, David Silva wouldn’t be amongst the first five or six names to come to mind. Yet, Silva played 125 times for Spain, bettered by only six other men, and only three midfielders – The Barca Boys – who played in his time.
When Silva came to England, many knew that he was skillful, quick, and capable of good things. But not many gave him a prayer of finishing as one of the Premier League’s all-time greats. Absolutely no one thought he would have a statue outside a stadium in cold, rainy Manchester.
David Silva’s retirement marks a sad day because we will no longer see a magician on the pitch making insanely challenging things look like a stroll in the park. But it is also a day to remind ourselves that simplicity and magic don’t have to be inversely related.
That choice has to come from within, though. Simplicity, unlike flamboyance, cannot be worn as a cloak. In his farewell video, most footage was given to team titles instead of wonder goals or mind-bending skill moves, of which he had many. It was quintessentially David Silva to do that. Football will miss the player, but one can only hope it doesn’t have to miss the person.