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Gone but not forgotten:
Chris Eagles
Position: Wide midfielder
From: Manchester United - on loan - January 2005
Record: Played: 10(3) Scored: 1
To: Manchester United - end of loan - April 2005
Career stats: Soccerbase
He was: Heading in the right direction

If this were a movie, the trailer would be spectacular. You know, the kind of thing that doesn't so much whet your appetite as set it aflame, burning until the release date arrives. First in the queue. First in line for the anticlimax. This isn't a movie, of course, and it doesn't have a trailer...but Chris Eagles' three month loan spell mixed sporadic, dazzling highlights with lengthy, woolly dialogue and predictable plot-lines in much the same way. It was memorable, certainly; it fell well short of greatness nevertheless.

For a player who'd started less than half a dozen competitive games prior to his arrival at Vicarage Road, that's absolutely fine. More than fine, in fact. The whole point of going out on loan is to learn, to be part of an environment that expects, demands and needs results to go along with promising performances...and there's no question at all that Chris Eagles returns to Old Trafford as a stronger player than when he left it. What he must do now, though, is to build on some very obvious, very valuable attributes; the Football League is full of highly talented players whose influence is too rarely felt. He should become much, much more than that.

Still, he's now more than a name. Prior to January, his main claim to fame was as the other part of the deal that brought Danny Webber to Watford; a local lad and a former trainee, he'd been tempted away to Lancashire as a youngster, and the payments that might've resulted were waived to form the "fee" for Webber's transfer. That those payments may have reached the region of half a million quid spoke highly of Eagles' talent, although occasional glimpses of Champions League (not champion, not a league) substitute appearances suggested that it would be some time before eagerness gave way to experience.

But the player who arrived on loan, via well-established connections with the United management, was rather less raw than we'd probably expected. If Johnnie Jackson struggled for some weeks to find his place, Chris Eagles seemed to fit right into the same squad with very little fuss and bother, perhaps assisted by a remarkable debut as part of a second-string, between-Liverpool side that grabbed an extraordinary draw at Wigan. Two weeks later, he was off the bench to seal a fortunate home victory over Gillingham with a quite wonderful goal, sauntering casually through a tatty defence in the last minute and finishing in front of the Rookery with the nonchalant aplomb of someone who'd done it a hundred times before. The first of those highlights.

At that point, the prospect of watching Chris Eagles for another two and a half months was utterly tantalising. With the team consolidating its position in mid-table - in somewhat hesitant, inconsistent form, yet still gathering enough points to stay well clear of trouble - there seemed to be every prospect of a pleasant, sunny end-of-season, with royal entertainment from this ambitious youngster. It didn't work out like that, for anyone.

There was no dramatic fall from grace. Rather, Chris Eagles' gradual slump in form was a fairly minor sub-plot within the much more grave, distressing events that unfolded during March, a disastrous month that armed the board with enough reasons to dismiss Ray Lewington in favour of someone more in tune with their outlook. After his superb contribution against Gillingham, Eagles started four of the next five games, yet with diminishing impact that eventually demanded his return to the sidelines. A small part of an unfolding crisis, it's impossible to blame him for not being able to sustain his influence as he struggled to come to terms with first team football; nevertheless, it shouldn't be forgotten, given that talk has already turned to the possibility of a further, longer loan spell next season.

It wasn't all wonderful, then. Pleasingly, there was always a sense that Chris Eagles was ready for a scrap, if needs be; he wasn't one of those wingers who'll simply stand on the touchline with hands in pockets if the ball doesn't come their way. Often, it was more about finding space - both within the game and, sometimes, within his own team - to express himself, and the key challenge ahead is to learn how to make that happen, to force the issue. A special player, he was too often an irrelevance when we could really have done with some creative inspiration to distract from our disintegrating defence.

But then, he left us with some particularly vivid reminders of what he might yet become. In the final games of his loan, as Adrian Boothroyd's bright positivity began to express itself on the pitch, he became a key figure once again, and the space that he craved seemed to find him as much as vice versa. Then, he could be simply beautiful to watch: sweeping forward, he'd save the fancy tricks for when he got cornered and instead weave and sway directly towards his target, whether goal or by-line, beating opponents who seemed to be stuck in glue. The crowd would be bristling with excitement as soon as the ball reached his feet, in anticipation of something happening, something that mattered. He appeared to acquire a fresh hunger, a desire to seize the ball and take it straight to the places where it would most viciously hurt opponents...and on a couple of occasions, it nearly resulted in goals that would've stolen awards.

More of that, then. Much more of that. There's no question about the talent, but, as ever, football requires talent to be realised in the rush of ninety minutes, not only in the leisurely days on the training ground in between. It requires consistency, especially at the levels that Chris Eagles is aiming at. He has time, of course...but he needs to make use of it.