Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Matthew Henney for Gretna (v Morton), 3 August 2002

And so it's back. The greatest alphabet based football feature on the net, this time featuring odd Dutchmen, subjectivity, Scotland, Joleon Lescott, the 1997 Champions League and Loftus Road.

Without further ado...

The A-Z Of Football

G is for......Gary (Lord Bargain)

Scientists at the University of Grimsby (left) have recently completed a five month long study into England's ongoing failure at major football tournaments. This has long been the subject of saloon banter but a number of leading sports analysts have spent several hundred man hours arriving at their conclusions.

Their findings are interesting to say the least. Many of the long-held views about the national teams relative failure have been discounted by these academics It's nothing to do with the number of games, the lack of a winter break, the reliance on an old-fashioned 4-4-2 formation, the tactical ineptitude of a series of managers or the influx of foreign players.

No, it's more simple than that. The reason for the lack of success is all to do with the naming of players.

Let's look at the facts. In 1979, 8.42% of the players in the top flight of English football were called Gary. 9.21% were called Kenny. 11.23% were called Trevor, 4.25% Derek, 4.81% Geoff and 7.52% Brian.

And, tellingly, 23.8% were called Dave and 18.6% were called Mike.

Fast-forward to 2007 and it is interesting to compare the current Premiership players. Notwithstanding the 1.2% called Cesc, 1.4% called Gabriel and 3.8% called Didier, there are no Dave's and no Mike's. What you do find, however, is an 11.3% David and a 14.8% Michael.

The boffins have termed this the Reverse Cameron Paradox. Whilst it is acceptable for the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to be monikered David, it is deemed unacceptable for him to be named "Dave" (despite his best efforts). The paradox works in reverse for footballers. The researchers postulate that England would have won the 1990 World Cup had they fielded Pete Beardsley, Dave Platt and Pete Shilton in the tournament. Similarly, the boffins suggest that England would have been beaten finalists in 2006 had they fielded Mike Carrick, Steve Gerrard, Mike Owen, Dave Beckham and Mike Dawson.

They continue with the theory that England will continue to underperform in tournaments until the current crop of players is replaced. They have calculated that England will struggle to reach even the finals of the next two tournaments fielding a team chock full of Ashley's, Rio's, Kieron's and Theo's.

Terry Butcher epitomised the strong English player. The current number 6, a John, may follow suit. His right back, Gary, is perfectly named and impressed the academics, as do the other Gary's, Lineker and Mabbutt. Other players with a high score on the Flogel-Micklethwaite Index include Geoff Thomas, Frank Lampard and Stanley Collymore. Low scorers included Joleon Lescott, Nigel Reo-Coker and Shola Ameobi.

Where are all the Martin's and Bob's? The Kevin's and Ray's? Nowhere to be found. And this is why, say the University researchers, England are destined to fail until something can be done about reintroducing properly monikered players to the international scene.

G is for.....Glenn Helder (Adem)

Glenn Helder was George Graham's last signing at Arsenal and in fact made his debut on the day the Graham was sacked for his part in the bungs scandal. The fact is it wouldn't have surprised me if George had been paid a tidy sum to take Helder from Vitesse Arnhem, but it was clear that this signing along with former Ipswich striker Chris Kiwomya were panic buys on his behalf.
I was actually hopeful that he could be a good player as he was much touted as a "product of the Ajax youth system", and had a lot of pace, but that was about it. He only scored 1 goal for Arsenal and from some of his shooting you can see why he didn't add to that tally. I remember him having quite a few shots that eventally went off for throw-ins which is never a good sign.

What I did like about him though was his hair! Do you remember the Eddie Murphy film 'Coming to America'? Do you remember the 'Soul Glo' adverts that featured in the film by that guy who was in ER? Well I bet Helder used that by the bucketload. He had great hair.

In all fairness he wasn't a bad player but left the club 2 years later and was replaced by the slightly more successful Marc Overmars. The end of an era.

(see more here)

G is for.....gambling (Paul)

There was a time when every football game I went to, I'd pop along to one of the Ladbrokes stands at St James' Park and place a bet on the outcome of the match. Nothing too flash, normally on a combination of final score and first scorer. I thought that it added a little extra frisson to the excitement of watching the match, and the chance of winning £50 for my £1 stake seemed to me to be a worthwhile gamble.

That all changed the night I saw Newcastle play Barcelona in the Champions League in 1997.

Having almost enjoyed success during the previous season's UEFA Cup campaign, thanks to Tino Asprilla's excellent European goal scoring record, I figured it was only a matter of time before I successfully combined that with the final score, and so backed Tino to once again open the scoring, and Newcastle to beat the Catalan giants 2-1. (Obviously I couldn't countenance the idea of betting that Newcastle would lose.)

The game started well, and before too long, Tino had done it again, opening his account for the evening, and scoring a brilliant goal at the Gallowgate end. By half time, he'd added a second, and with him and Keith Gillespie tearing Barcelona apart, it was looking like it was going to be a brilliant night. I remember standing at half time, and surveying the seen as St James' Park soaked up the fact that we'd just witnessed our team rip apart one of the greatest sides in the world. Contentedly I thought, Barca must be about to launch a bit of a comeback - probably nick a goal, and then we would hold on, and I'd be £50 better off. As the teams emerged from the tunnel I settled down to watch the Catalan revival which would see me collect on my bet.

Then Gillespie broke down the right, whipped in a blinding cross and Asprilla slotted home right in front of me. St James' erupted, as Tino went somersaulting into the corner to celebrate his hat-trick, and all I could think was "The bastard's just cost me fifty quid". I couldn't celebrate the goal with my usual enthusiasm, I couldn't share in the delight of everyone around me, all I could think of was the money that I might have won and which I thought was as good as mine barely ten minutes previously.

That Barcelona then started their comeback only darkened my mood and at 3-1 all I could think was that if we hadn't scored a third, I'd be spending the money now. Then the visitors added a second, and I snapped out of my malaise, and got back into the act of encouraging Newcastle to hang on to their now slender lead.

Thankfully they managed it, and I was as delighted as anyone to have been able to witness a magnificent result, and left the ground vowing never to bet on Newcastle again.

G is for.......Gretna - (Skif)

The squat nature of Raydale Park, with its pre-war bus shelter of a terrace along one side, the corrugated iron roofing and the dour wooden fa├žade of the clubhouse betray its recent non-league history. However, the temporary stand recently rebuilt as permanent at the far end hints at their undoubted ambition. Indeed, plans have been submitted for a new 6,000 seat SPL-compliant stadium. With Gretna currently leading the Scottish Division One, at time of writing, by nine points, they will have to get a wriggle on. Whether they are pipped by St. Johnstone, groundshare or need one more season in the second tier, the rise of Gretna FC has been remarkable.

You might make comparisons to Wigan Athletic: former non-league club suddenly getting an unshackled hose of ready cash pouring in and rocketing through their leagues. Although the growth appears more at Wimbledon pace and one notable difference is that Wigan’s non-league days didn’t occur in a different country. Indeed not many clubs, let alone Scottish ones, can have once claimed their record attendance as having come against Rochdale.

This is only the 5th season since Gretna ceased to provide an east/west borderland balance to Berwick Rangers’ participation in the Scottish leagues. Prior to that the Black & White’s played their football within the English pyramid, being part of the first intake into a new Northern Premier League second tier in 1982 where they remained before getting elected into the Scottish leagues at their third application, after the demise of Airdrieonians (and then new club Airdrie United’s takeover of stricken Clydebank) left a spare spot in Division 3.

After a couple of decent seasons of consolidation, Gretna ran away with the bottom division the year before last, finishing 20 points ahead of second placed Peterhead, 47 in front of Cowdenbeath in 3rd with a fairly reasonable goal difference of +101. Last season they cantered through Division Two, winning by 18 points. In the same season, they also became the first third tier side to reach the Scottish Cup Final, losing on penalties to the twins-in-a-jar spectacle that is Heart of Midlothian.

For this they could thank their excellent squad of players, many of whom could easily be playing at a higher level. The fact that they are not is due to the input of Gretna’s managing director and 100-a-day smoker, Brooks Mileson, whose JP Getty-style philanthropy is centred on shooting this small town club through the Scottish leagues. It might be argued that should anything happen to their understandably illness-prone benefactor, Gretna’s fairly small crowds (they do, after all, share a catchment area with Carlisle United) could never sustain such a lofty status as the Scottish Premier League. His sponsorship of the Northern League in England is in perpetuity, guaranteed even after his death, but I’m not sure if the same arrangement applies with Gretna. You might also say that Premier Division football might be coming far too soon for them, especially if you consider their UEFA Cup humiliation at the hands of Derry City. Still, if you were a Gretna fan, you’d just lap it up, especially if you’d been there since before their new beginning.

I visited Raydale last season and saw them easily despatch Highland League Cove Rangers 6-1 on their Road to Hampden. The ‘Down Memory Lane’ filler-page in the match-day mag revealed a great deal about their paradigm shift. One year prior to that game (so two years ago now), they apparently beat Elgin 3-0 in front of a developing crowd of 661 (they average around 1,300 nowadays in Divison 1), while 11 years ago they were hosting Worksop in front of 82. They won 6-0 that night, as it goes. The one distinct link between that Northern League era and the Scottish Cup Final one was midfielder Derek Townsley, who played, and scored a brace, in that Worksop win. His inclusion in the starting XI for the final was romantic, but that he should miss one of the penalties in the shoot out was perhaps unnecessarily cruel.

Mileson’s money not only brings in good players, but also enables them to have a modern staffing structure, with well-known names coming in to take on roles from time to time. Former DR Congo and Huddersfield gaffer Mick Wadsworth is currently director of football, while until recently former Bolton man David Holdsworth was there, with a detail of ‘Diet and Fitness’ as well as overseeing the reserve side. He also seemed to be on hand to provide plenty of programme notes and moody portraits to go with them. Well, that was certainly the case when I went to see them.

His contributions to the matchday programme that day really were woks of art. His piece on the stiffs recent turn out against Arbroath were curved around a shot of ‘Reg’ (as he signed himself) wearing a leather jacket, shirt unbuttoned to reveal a cheeky hint of chest and thus seemingly about to film a promo for an unadventurous cover-version of “I Want To Know What Love Is”. Elsewhere he continued his A-Z of football series with Kenny Dalglish at ‘K’. Of most interest here though was another quality headshot of ‘Reg’, deadpan cool above a black polo-neck, which attempted to say “Because the lady loves…”, but actually suggested that he had, at that very moment, sat down too quickly on his bike saddle.

For that alone, I think I will always have a soft spot for Gretna.

G is for.....Grass (Ben)

When weighing up the relative strengths of two teams pre-match, it’s often the case that, on paper, one is significantly superior to the other. But, as smugly self-satisfied pundits and brainless footballers never tire of pointing out, football is played not on paper but on grass.

Well, mainly.

Last time out, I was writing about foosball, played on wood, and there’s also Subbuteo, played on a felt pitch laid out on a table or the floor. 5-a-side takes place in gyms and on knee-shredding sand-doused AstroTurf – and who, as a child, hasn’t enjoyed having a kickabout in the street, belting the ball off gable end walls and garage doors while all the while ready to scarper at the sound of a shattering window or a wailing car alarm?

Even “proper” football hasn’t always been played on grass. Remember the brief fad for plastic pitches in the ‘80s that saw them installed at QPR’s Loftus Road, Oldham’s Boundary Park, Luton’s Kenilworth Road and Preston’s Deepdale? (Thank Christ the FA saw sense and banned them in 1988.) And, as cursory examination of the ‘Match of the Day’ archives reveals, in the ‘70s football was played on mud, by improbably haired men in tight shorts who liked nothing better than slugging it out toe-to-toe and then laughing it off over a meat pie and a pint.

Since that “golden age”, the quality of pitches has improved dramatically. Groundkeeping has become both a science and an art, while technological advances such as undersoil heating and sophisticated drainage systems mean that, in the UK at least, top-flight football is generally played on immaculately slick and manicured grass surfaces.

I say “generally” because there are occasional exceptions – like the Chelsea v Charlton match in January 2003, dubbed the Battle of Stamford Beach. In the ensuing sandstorm, on grass”, adding that a Chelsea official had said the surface was “the base on which a new pitch was to be directly laid”. Hardly the sort of thing on which the Blues’ multi-million-pound talents and egos would be expected to strut their stuff.

But at least it was flat. Those who turn out for pub teams on Sunday mornings, already labouring under hangovers incurred as a result of the previous evening’s team-building session, have to contend with the constant danger of turning their ankles in potholes and on molehills – not to mention performing balletic manoeuvres just as they’re about to shoot, as a consequence of skidding in shit. When was the last time you tuned in to Radio 5 to hear Alan Green saying: “And it’s Ronaldo … Ronaldo advancing on goal … oh no, he’s trod on a dog egg”?

For us fans, the pitch at our team’s home ground is the “hallowed turf”. Restricted to cheering from the sidelines, we all harbour a desire to take to the field, feel the pitch beneath our feet and tread in the footsteps of our heroes. This curiously passionate attachment to a patch of grass is the reason why, when clubs move to swanky new stadia, they often seize the opportunity to make some money by portioning up and selling off bits of the turf. What I want to know, though, is what people then do with that square of grass and soil. Keep it on the mantelpiece? Add it to their own lawn? Answers on a postcard (or, alternatively, in the comments box).

G is for…. Greatness (Swiss Toni)

Once the dust had settled on his (admittedly spectacular) farewell to football, Zinedine Zidane was widely acclaimed to have ascended into the footballing pantheon as one of the true greats of the game.

“Great”. What does that mean exactly?

The culture of the superlative rides roughshod across the game and “great” is surely the most overused word in football. The English language is just another casualty of football’s relentless war of escalating hyperbole. In this world, a goal is never just “a goal”, it is “a great goal” or a “superb goal”; the pass that led to the goal is a “majestic pass”; the players are “fantastic” or “brilliant”…. And if Sky are to be believed, the Premiership is the greatest league in the world and the quality is so high that a game can happily be declared “Super” before a ball has even been kicked. It’s a Premiership game? Satisfaction guaranteed. No, you’ll be more than satisfied. You’ll be mesmerised. Gripped. Riveted. You are about to see the greatest game in the history of the world’s greatest game. And as if that excitement wasn’t enough - coming up next on Sky Sports 3 – Speedway! Don’t touch that dial.

But life (and comparative adjectives) cannot work like that. In order to have a superlative, you must have something that it exceeds. By the very definition of the word ‘superlative’, not everything can be superior to everything else. To have a great game, you must also have a long catalogue of average games or dull games (and I think I must have seen them all). And yet here we are: every game is better than every game that came before; players now are better than players have ever been before. It’s relentless, it’s stupid and it’s clearly not true. Great games are few and far between indeed. When was the last great game that you watched? I remember the Liverpool vs Alaves UEFA cup final as being an absolute corker, but I’m really scratching my head to think of the last really genuinely all-time-great game that I sat and watched.


But here’s the puzzler: in the discussions that followed Zidane’s retirement and the general acceptance that he had been one of the genuinely great players in the history of the game, I was struck by how few other players were universally hailed as greats. Zidane was apparently ascending into a select group that certainly included Pele and Maradona, and arguably included Alfredo Di Stefano, George Best, Johann Cruyff and Franz Beckenauer. You can argue until you are blue in the face about the merits of hundreds of other players, but basically that was it. That’s quite a select gathering indeed for over 100 years of the organised game. The selective use of the word “great” when applied to the very best players in the history of the game forms an interesting contrast indeed to its liberal overuse in the day-to-day coverage of football. Maybe I should just send Clive Tyldesley a thesaurus?

Of course, the pedants amongst you will already have noted that the word “great” is not actually a superlative at all. Where can you go from “great”? The answer is simple: “greatest”.

And that, dear reader, is where I throw the floor open to you for the perennial debate: who was the greatest player? And, more parochially, who was your club's greatest player? It’s subjective of course, but isn’t a subjective view of the world what football is all about? Nail your colours to the mast and tell me what you think.


Thanks as ever to all the contributors. And this time som questions that need answering. Who are your clubs/the world's great players? Do we need more Trevors? What do people do with sacred turf? Ever been denied huge winnings by a late goal?

The floor is open....

(and in an idea vaguely related to the Spine Line competition on "Four Four Two", the goal above was Gretna's first in the Scottish League, relating to Skif's article about the same team....)


adem said...

On the gambling front I have to agree with Paul in that you should never bet on your own team, well not on specific scores at least.

To bet on them to win is fine but as soon as you go on to suggest an actual scoreline you're in effect betting against your teams performance.

If it's 2-1 then you're hoping that the away team scores a goal and you're also hoping that your team has limited chances when we should all be hoping that our teams score by the bucketload and keep a cleansheet.

LB said...

I have a mate who carefully nurtured a small piece of the Goldstone Ground turf for quite some time in a little pot (he didn't buy it, we dug it up by hand as we invaded the pitch after the last ever game at the famous old ground.)

Great players? There are lots of great players. Despite recent polls that hail Eric Cantona as the "greatest" United player, I think you can't look beyond Best or Charlton for that honour (or Duncan Edwards if you believe anyone who saw him play).

I've seen a number of "great" players (defined quite how, I am not sure) even in my 20 years of watching United. Schmeichel, Keane, Hughes, Giggs, Scholes, Ronaldo, Robson. Maybe I've been spoilt, but during that time I've also been fortunate enough to see other "greats" including Batistuta, Figo, Desailly and Zola. All, I would say, great players in their own right.

Paul - I am a fan of the "insurance" bet. For example, I have £50 on Chelsea to win the Premiership this season (at about 2-1) on the basis that if they do, I'll win £100 and if they don't, I'll have lost my £50 but United will have won the league....

Jonny said...

The Goldstone Ground - aaah, happy days!

Jonny said...

"famous old ground" - I like it.

swisslet said...

Kevs, Daves, Geoffs and Bobbys. Very funny bargs!

Do I even need to mention my club's greatest player? (and no, I never saw Billy Wright playing).

As for your list of greats....

Schmeichel - maybe. There aren't many 'keepers on the list of "greats". Lev Yashin, Gordon Banks and Dino Zoff? I'd put the great dane in there I think.

Keane - all time great? Good player certainly and perhaps his greatest asset was the drive and will to win he gave everyone else. Another possible, I think, but like Best he never really had the international stage, did he? Not quite as flashy as Best either.

Hughes - no. Scored some good goals, sure, but not enough to be a real great, surely.

Giggs, Scholes, Ronaldo, Robson - No. Good players all, but not greats.

Batistuta, Figo, Desailly and Zola. Good not great.

I read a very interesting article on Graeme Hick once. It focused not on his relative failure at international level, but concentrated on his incredible domestic record and pondered why we could never just accept him as being a very good player (and statistically his first class record is one of the best). Why that wasn't enough and that we couldn't forgive him for not being great. To some extent Tim Henman suffers from this too. I think it's also true of a lot of footballers. There are a few who have been put on a pedestal and a lot of players - most of the ones you mention - who have been dominant in their own era (which is all you can ask of someone, isn't it?) but are somehow missing that certain something that will make them a true great. It's daft really. Could you imagine a team playing all those greats? Would it be a great side? Hell no - it would concede at least as many as it scored. Keane and Schemichel could only help there, eh?