I am pleased to announce on Sunday July 13th next summer, we will be celebrating our second victory at the World Cup Finals. England will become only the third nation, second European, to lift the trophy outside their home continent. Why am I so confident? Well, it’s quite simple to see, really – our international team is at long last playing international style football, as to trying to succeed with traditional British club football.
Throughout all of childhood and adolescence, it was drummed into me by various P.E teachers at school the only way to play is with ‘big, strong boys’ at the back. And in a slight way, they were right at the time. England won the World Cup with the ultimate ‘big, strong boy’ at the back, Jack Charlton. Not the most mobile or skilful of players, it was his determination to achieve that got him through (but then, living in the shadow of an amazingly mobile and mega skilful brother, he had to do something). The saving grace of the defence England fielded at the time was their captain – Bobby Moore. Way too talented on the ball than the vast majority of defenders, the West Ham stalwart was also blessed with exceptional vision at reading the game quickly and concisely. Upon Moore’s retirement from the international game, Norman Hunter and Tommy Smith anchored the side. Both quite destructive in their methods and application, it was the beginning of having a strapping centre half in the middle of the field in an attempt to tame the opposition’s lethal strikers.
Now, this may seem like a very clever idea – small forwards would find it near on impossible to break through such a defence. But clubs began fielding a strapping, barnstorming forward who was not going to go down under a challenge, in fact quite possible of putting the defender on his arse instead. Frank Stapleton, Joe Jordan and Cyrille Regis being masters of this niche. And if your forwards were not gifted with physical presence, let them have the one thing all ‘big, strong boys’ hate – a blistering turn of speed. For example, take a look at the vast majority of pictures of Gary Lineker and Michael Owen during their respective very successful careers. They were both lightning quick, the only way to stop them was taking their legs from under them. Hence why there are so many images of them both being booted up in the air, as if experiencing a perpetual bout of birthday bumps. I even used to play this way myself – if I wasn’t going to get near the ball at the feet of the fellow I was marking (I’m not the fastest person on my feet by a long stretch), something from the Gospel According to Vinny Jones would have to be executed. It was a miracle none of my year group were seriously maimed. Or worse. My timing was such it wasn’t just out, it was on a different continent in a different decade. You hear of former soldiers found in the jungle years after the war had ended, still convinced the enemy are about to attack any second. That’s my footballing ability in a nutshell.
The thing is, most English teams played the same way, with a liability at the back. Statistically, I bet the player with the worst disciplinary record would be one of these ‘big, strong boys’ at the back. Numerous needless free kicks and penalties would have been conceded, quite a few punished further by the referee with a card of the appropriate chosen colour at the time. Taking the best (sic) of these players onto the international scene was just a recipe for disaster. Against the minnows of the world (San Marino, Malta, Faroe Islands, etc), even I might look useful, but the ‘big, strong boys’ failings are all too apparent against the ability of Argentina, Germany and Italy.
The international forward now is both strong and fast. Some have speed that would put them in contention for their respective country’s Olympic teams, and body strength more a common to a rugby union regular. To combat this, international coaches created the sweeper and defenders that are much more mobile. The only British club to use this method was Liverpool. Their four European Cups and continued league championships through the seventies and eighties proves precedence to this. The England international team however, keep along the traditional route.
If you think about the best defenders across our continent – Paolo Maldini of Italy, Spain’s Carlos Puyol and Frank Leboeuf of France – were and are the optimum of the modern defender. With the British predilection of the ‘big, strong boy’ ideal, it’s oh so ironic England had a player who played exactly the way of these coveted foreign internationals – Bobby Moore. Briefly, the F.A had Des Walker in the team, but the two centre halves have generally reverted to ‘type’ Terry Butcher, John Terry, Tony Adams, Viv Anderson, Rio Ferdinand and Phil Neville all were granted repeated appearances, as despite being very good defenders, we had no other style of player to keep them out of the side. Until now.
The current England team seem more ‘continental’ in its method and application, which in turn seems to baffle the home sporting press. They struggle to accept and see we need to play more like Juventus than Notts County. And to be completely frank, it wasn’t traditional British football that won us the cup in ’66. Sir Alf used his infamous wingless wonders, remember. Indeed, we’d love to have a flowing, swash-buckling side that scores at will and entertains the masses for the full ninety minutes, but we are not Brazil and will never have players of that ilk. Perhaps having current manager Roy Hodgson who has worked abroad for several seasons is helping, but so had Sven Goran Eriksson. The difference now is not just this, it’s the clubs are now developing the sort of defender England needed all those years ago. Recent results suggest this may well be the case, with other international teams finding the Three Lions so hard to beat.
The ‘big, strong boy’ is no more. I think Bobby Moore would approve.