whatever happened to real football?

I’ve been watching Man C v Juventus tonight in the Europa League. It was a dull affair and I’m not just saying that as a Man U fan. It wasn’t the 1-1 result either; I’ve seen some fantastic drawn games over the years. The problem was that they were playing a style of football that can only be described as basketball. It’s what happens when you buy a team of superstars or when you happen to be managed by Arsene Wenger or like watching Spain play in their occasional laboured performances.

This probably sounds like an anti blue mooner/gooner rant but it’s not really. I’ve seen Utd and England play this way too. It’s all high tempo, pass the ball with one touch (it’s not even control and pass) within tight triangles which enables the team to retain possession for a spell-binding sequence of passes which gets them from the edge of their penalty to within 5 yards of the half-way line, without anybody from the opposition having a sniff of the ball. It’s like watching those moments when the home side team play ‘keep ball’ when they’re coasting at 4-0 up with a round of ‘ole’s!’ from the home crowd.  It’s neat but numbing; something like a testimonial match where all the key players are present but there’s no actual body contact until red mist descends upon the opposition’s very own Joey Barton who commits a reckless yellow/red card offence.  It’s a form of football but just not the real thing to me.  It’s fussball.

Let me make it clear I’m not an advocate of the long ball game but I do believe it is a contact sport where physical challenges and strong but clean tackling are all part of the game. I sense that the Arsene Wengers of this world are slowly getting their way by having all hard tackles outlawed because of the risk to his players of serious injury. Much as I hate seeing anybody get badly injured surely we can’t let the game’s legislators change the fundamental nature of the contest. That said I would support the FA taking strong action against the likes of Nigel de Jong and Karl Henry irregardless of what the match referee saw/did at the time because their tackles over this last week-end  were quite simply reckless. Let’s face it both these guys have ‘form’ and how refreshing it was of the Dutch national team manager to drop de Jong from the national squad because of it. However let’s not get carried away; if we end up with an emasculated version of football it will become basketball with the feet I’m afraid. They may be morally suspect but I’m convinced most professional footballers don’t want to see a fellow player’s career threatened by serious injury.

Now this doesn’t mean that I think Stoke City are more enjoyable to watch than Arsenal but I like the honesty of their approach. If Arsenal have  an achilles heel (apart from a lack of a decent goalkeeper) it’s the fact that the more robust sides have knocked them out of their beautiful football stride. But that’s up to Wenger to provide counter-balance. The side they had with Viera and Keown in it had real physical presence and yet they could still play creative football and score lovely goals through Henry, Bergkamp et al.

I’ve always enjoyed watching an imaginative midfielder eg the incomparable Paul Scholes stroke a clever quick ball in to a multi-purpose striker who can seriously cause damage inside the box through his skill and physique. Rooney’s good in the role, probably the toughest for Man U since Mark Hughes. Shearer was v good as were Ian Wright, Ravanelli and Gullitt, and van Basten was just  a genius. I so admire those strikers who love the ball to feet in the box or fast down the channels or cut back from wide or who can pick it up outside the box where the centre back is looking like a little boy lost. Terry Henry was a master of that particular play.

I wrote a blog back on May 2007 about  the time when, at University,  I played against possibly the greatest striker that the UK has produced in the least 50 years, John Charles. He moved to Italy to play for Juventus in his heyday and whilst he became conversant with the more patient style of Serie A football, he still could kill a team with his ruthless brutal attacking style. At the height of the infamous catenaccio period of intense defensive play in Italy he still managed to score  93 goals for Juventus in just over 150 appearances. Phenomenal.

I think that’s the sort of player Man City need to make them complete and I hate to say it but maybe the signing of Torres in January could be the missing piece and allow them to play penetrative football rather than bloody subbuteo.  Let’s hope the owners have  run out of ambition by then.

If you can bear it here is a repeat of my recollections of that duel with the ‘gentle’ giant John Charles, by a million miles the best player I ever played against even though he was into his 40’s. What on earth he must have been like in his prime I can only guess at….

I played against John Charles when I was at University at Aberystwyth in the 70’s. It was a charity match between the Uni first XI and a former Wales international players XI. There were the Allchurch brothers, Cliff Jones and a few more recent players plus JC at centre forward. I’m an English guy but still had read of the exploits of this great player for Swansea, Leeds and Juve and I managed to get a switch to centre-half for the match only to play against him. He was 41-42 and still in good shape. But I was 21 and in my prime. I thought I’d give him a few nudges during the match and teach him that football is essentially a young man’s game.

There was a free kick to their side about 5 minutes in. The ball was floated up to him in the area and I rose to head it away. Easy – the old guy would never get off the ground. Well he rose two feet above me, elbowed me in the head just enough for it to hurt like hell but not enough to draw significant blood, and guided the ball, with a beautifully cushioned header, into the path of one of his team mates to score inside the box. A truly lovely goal and I was watching from the ground in a heap, head hurting in hands. He picked me up, dusted me off, smiled and asked if was I ok. I nodded, and then asked if that was the best he’d got. He smiled again and just said ‘how about you and me having a right old game son’. Game on.

For about 30 minutes he kicked the shit out of me and I just couldn’t get near him until he started to tire and  then I began to get him. After an hour he was mine for the taking but the guy was in his bloody 40’s for heaven’s sake and starting to puff a bit. We both knew it and discreetly shook hands and just played friendly style for the rest of the match or rather I just revelled in watching him lead a line like I’d never seen before nor since. Even so I can honestly say it was the most physical and yet enjoyable game I’ve ever played.

He was twice my age and he absolutely mullahed me for 30 -35 minutes. He must have been one awesome player in his prime. Gentle giant? Playing-wise he was anything but. He hurt. But afterwards he was first to the bar to buy ME a drink and told me how tough he’d found me to play against. Get outa here. He smiled and punched my shoulder. Then he had regaled us with tales from his career. Even his old buddies who must have heard these stories a thousand times were engrossed. He just commanded your attention. I was devastated to see him leave before the night was old. I had so many questions I wanted to ask him (everybody did) but it wasn’t just that; he had something about him that was just awesome and yet ever so modest and humble. On reflection the term ‘gentle giant’ summed up John Charles perfectly.

I still think about the impact he might have had in the modern game  (he would surely have  been the first £100m player) and  I can’t help but think that we’ll never see his like again, sadly. Just look at the guy in his prime – albeit outside Elland Rd:

Now that’s what I call a real footballer; look at that bloody physique. And do you know something? Not only was he never sent off in his career but he never received a single booking. Not a bloody one, despite being the most physical guy I played against in over 30 years of playing the game. And that’s because his philosophy was always to play very hard but to play fairly and honestly. As I can testify he’d give you a contest that left you with more bruises than if you’d been stuffed in a donkey suit and hit with a pinata stick but it was never in his make-up to set out to severely injure a fellow player.  John Charles the hardest yet nicest guy in football and perhaps the most perfect example to young aspiring players of the ultimate footballer (after Duncan Edwards whose talents sadly I can only read about ).



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