So Peter Jackson believes that Lee Trundle behaved unacceptably toward his fellow professional players in the recent match against his Huddersfield team at the Vetch. He may not have spelt it out, but rather like the judge who believed that women who dressed in a certain way were asking to be raped, Jackson implied that Trundle was wearing football’s variant on a flimsy top and short skirt. The judge in question was met with a hail of protest from people who felt he should take off his blinkers and live in more modern times. Sadly, Jackson’s comments are probably echoed silently by all too many of his peers in management, particularly in the lower divisions of the English pyramid.
Trundle’s alleged crime? Diving in the penalty area to gain a match-winning goal? Handling the ball across the line? Feigning serious injury to get another player sent off for an innocuous challenge? Had any of these been the charge then Jackson’s outburst might have had some resonance. Instead, it seem that the behaviour that he felt was inappropriate to a professional football pitch was to control the ball and to juggle with it. In other words, Jackson felt that the very thing that most people would pay to watch was simply not on.
It would be interesting to know Jackson’s views on a number of other well known pieces of audacious football. Would he argue that Pele, for instance was due a good kicking for jumping over the ball and making that poor Uruguayan goalkeeper look foolish when he ran round the other side of him in the 1970 World Cup. Or that Johan Cruyff should be ashamed of himself for “tricking” an unsuspecting defender with his famous “turn” in 1974 an should have been made to apologise?
Translate this into other walks of life and one might speculate as to the quality of life in chez Jackson. Are music and dancing are banned as being overly licentious? Is all innovation frowned upon as being the work of the devil? Was all that show off nonsense in the Sistine Chapel an invitation for any self respecting painter and decorator to put Michaelangelo in his place? One half suspects that Jackson’s only philosophical gripe with Oliver Cromwell would have surrounded his attempts to ban football altogether. Then again, if the Lord Protector had been forced to sit through a season watching one of Ian Atkin’s teams you could see where he was coming from.
The British Disease?
Sadly, it seems that for some managers virtues such as skill and ball control are an anathema of all that a professional footballer should strive for. According to this view, winning is the only thing that matters in football and the idea of a football match being an uplifting spectacle the preserve of utopian dreamers. As one of these great joy-givers to the English game once commented, “If you want entertainment, go to the circus!” Bearing in mind that the average performing seal tended to possess more in the way of ball skills than many of the footballers employed by such managers, it would hardly be surprising if many fans were happy to follow this advice.
Much has been rightly said and written about poor spectator facilities and hooliganism contributing to falling gates in British football in the late 1980s but less has been made of the sheer poor quality of the so called football on display. Some of us became distinctly nervous as the fences came down in the early 1990s, as we were no longer protected from some of the more “robust” individuals on display on the pitch. Football became a bit like a visit to the safari park rather than an outing to the zoo, save that the former was arguably safer due to the presence of armed wardens.
Many watchers of the skies of the British game put the blame for the growth of joyless football firmly in the court of Don Revie’s Leeds United. However, this may be a little unfair bearing in mind that the team featured talents such as Eddie Gray, Terry Cooper and Johnny Giles and that behind the cynicism and gamesmanship lay a team genuinely capable of great football.
Perhaps the roots of the unsmiling approach are more properly attributed to Sir Alf Ramsey’s England World Cup winners. Ramsey’s militarily efficient wingless wonders may have lifted international football’s biggest prize (albeit care of some distinctly home town refereeing), but in terms of thrilling talent were limited to Bobby Charlton. The issue of whether Jimmy Greaves should have played in the final will long be debated, but Ramsey always seemed more comfortable with players who carried out his instructions rather than accommodating maverick individualists in his teams. Whilst this may be a little unfair to a man who later capped such talents as Peter Osgood and Rodney Marsh, neither became established in the manner of the self-improved workaholic Kevin Keegan.
Ramsey was a man of his time, and there seems little doubt that his worldview was shaped by the military influences that were inevitable in his generation. Indeed, it is a compelling argument that the mentality of many immediate post war football coaches was influenced by their time spent in the armed forces. To this day, military phrases persist in footballspeak.
Perhaps its forgivable that a man of the age of Sir Bobby Robson, who grew up as a young professional alongside men who had served in genuine battle, should use such phraseology. For players and managers of a younger generation to use such terms is to say the least interesting in psychological terms. Much as it may conflict with the self image of some of these would-be strategic geniuses of the battlefield, the figure that they most frequently resemble is Captain Mainwaring. There again, there are at least a couple of recent high profile managers who would have provided serious competition to Sergeant Bilko’s position as head of the motor pool scams.
Kings of Europe
Whatever the psychological sources, there can be little doubt that English clubs success in Europe in the late 1970s and early 80s was based on perspiration rather than inspiration. With the possible exception of the Ardiles-Hoddle Tottenham side, Euro success tended to be based on hard running and shutting down of space. The preference of successive England managers to build their teams around Bryan Robson rather than Glen Hoddle is instructive. That England were unsuccessful during this period seems not to have deterred them one jot. Interestingly, England’s best performances in World Cups arguably came when Robson was injured, and first Hoddle and later Gascoigne were given central roles.
Not that the British game had always been associated with grim efficiency. If Ramsey’s wingless wonders arguably bored for England, Matt Busby’s Man U showed a very different side of the British game. The presence of George Best and Denis Law alongside Charlton produced a side that produced a far more spectacular Wembley success. Certainly the parallel efforts of the Welsh rugby team of the period showed that British sporting teams were not necessarily second to anybody in thrills and imagination.
Sadly, as the seventies and eighties wore on the mainstream of British football became dominated by a pragmatic approach, and even in the nineties it seemed success in the British leagues was dependant on the presence of at least two midfield “enforcers”, whilst the genuine playmaker became seen as a luxury.
It is questionable as to the extent that permissive refereeing has contributed to the situation. Certainly British players constantly get away in domestic games with challenges that would draw an immediate whistle from most foreign referees. Unsurprisingly they are found out when on the international stage, be it for club and country. One often wonders whether British players would benefit if domestic games were occasionally handled by foreign referees. We have foreign players and coaches, so why not referee exchanges? Certainly it might lead to less cases of culture shock in the Champions League.
Managers frequently cry out for “common sense” in refereeing. However, this is lazy thought, for one man’s common sense is almost inevitably another’s outrage. If referees emulated their European counterparts and clamped down on those who seek to abort skill, then there may be an initial rush of red cards. Managers would try to pass the buck, and blame referees for robbing the paying public of a spectacle. But who are the real culprits? The referees or the managers who encourage their players to deliberately ruin by any means anything that might be worth watching in the first place?
Home Thoughts Abroad
However, the philosophical dichotomy between the pragmatists and entertainers was hardly limited to these shores. If the West German team featuring Gunter Netzer was almost the equal of their Dutch contemporaries in terms of flair, their later successors became a byword for muscular efficiency. Few would rush out and purchase a video of Hans Pieter Briegel’s finest moments for the football content.
By the time British clubs had returned to Europe in 1990 the rest of the continent had caught up in terms of fitness, combining it with the emphasis on good technique that had been sadly gone awol from it’s British counterpart. The AC Milan team of this era combined the fitness and pressing of the likes of Liverpool with the skills and technique of naturally gifted players to produce a team that has arguably influenced and defined European if not world football in the last fifteen or so years. Some of us would hope that Real Madrid’s style might be the blueprint for the next.
Even within the parameters of what has become the European mainstream, however, the emphasis can vary. It was arguable that the last European Championships threw up a contrast between the pragmatists of the chilly north ( England, Germany, Sweden and Norway) and the freer Mediterranean South (France, Spain, and Portugal). There again, Holland showed that enterprise and entertainment are not unknown North of Lille, whilst the Italians were the usual frustrating mix of sublime skill and ruthless organisation. Cattenacio, that ultimate contrast to the beautiful game, was the child of the land of da Vinci.
That contrasting philosophies as to the manner in which the game is played is an international phenomena is starkly emphasised in Argentina. The county’s football is so schizophrenic in nature that if such contrasting qualities were exhibited by a human being they would be sectioned and locked away. Broadly, Argentine football is divided between the Menonistas, who espouse the beautiful game, and the Bilardistas who believe in more Machiavellian means to an end. The former are named after the manager who gave the country World Cup success in 1978, the latter after the man who repeated the feat in 1986. Menotti the chain smoking free spirit who ironically won the cup to give a sheen of respectability to the murderous regime of the generals. Bilardo, member of the Estudiantes team that butchered their way past Busby’s United to win the World Club Championship, but who relied on the genius of Diego Maradona for his finest moments.
The dichotomy of spirit at the heart of Argentine football was exhibited to the full by those surreal five minutes against England in 1986. The ultimate cynicism followed by the truly memorable. There again, one wonders whether the likes of Peter Jackson might well condone the former, claiming that they didn’t get a clear view of the incident, whilst condemning the latter as having been seriously disrespectful to his fellow professionals.
The Swansea Way
At Swansea we have generally been lucky in that the traditions of the club demand that the game be played with a certain style. Pragmatism has always been an unwelcome guest at the Vetch. In recent history Griffiths and Toshack left a legacy that was respected in thought, if not always in deed by the likes of Burrows and Molby. Evans and Cork were given short shrift whilst Hollins was only at best tolerated. Swansea, Watford and Wimbledon all ascended the league structure in record time. Notwithstanding the presence of John Barnes at Vicarage Road, only one of those teams truly footballed their way to the top, whilst the sad irony is that the least attractive lasted the longest in the top division.
Grim pragmatism provided a route to success in the British game for too long. If Wimbledon represented the unsmiling face of the game – and lets forget all those burnt suits and other jolly japes that only served as a diversion from the awful football that nobody wanted to watch and ultimately sealed Sam Hammam’s failure – the true nadir was surely George Graham’s mid nineties Arsenal. That a team so bereft of imagination could win trophies whilst Keegan’s Newcastle and Ardiles Tottenham failed was truly depressing.
Yet would we truly want to swop our heritage? Would we really prefer to be like Sheffield United and achieve relative success with year after year of what might be called football, Jim, but not as we know it. Would we ever really want the likes of Neil Warnock in charge at the Vetch? The memory of Tony Currie must seem very distant to older Blades fans.
Get the Balance Right
Winning is important, but sometimes it’s nice to win the right way. A thrill a minute win under Toshack seemed worth more than almost any of Hollins hard ground victories. Organisation and discipline obviously have their place, but they should be the foundation for something more inspiring. Organisation should be a means to an end, not an end in itself.
Brian Flynn has currently got his team playing some of the most exciting football seen at the Vetch for nigh on twenty years. The signs are that the crowds are won over, and that the style of Britton, Maylett, Trundle et al is not only winning but has people actually enjoying what they are seeing. The pragmatic and physical virtues of the likes of Hull and Oxford will doubtlessly provide stern (literally) opposition. But lets enjoy a team that is putting smiles back on faces, and is a worthy successor in spirit to the teams of Allchurch, Jones, James and Curtis. The likes of Peter Jackson will no doubt seeth, but maybe some of us will just enjoy seeing some more “professionals” humiliated. After all, some of us are quite open to the idea of being entertained.
Too often in recent years clubs have exhibited fantasy and adventure in the boardroom, often to the point of recklessness. At the same time, pragmatism ruled on the pitch. Many people would think that this was the wrong way round, and that sound practice in the boardroom and enterprise on the pitch were a better combination. Maybe at the Vetch, we’re doing something right just at the moment.