What makes the professional footballer stand out from the crowd?
That crowd being you, me and countless millions of others who, at one time or another, have thought ourselves a bit useful, someone who could, for want of a better phrase, ‘play a bit’?
I played at school. I played at college as well. I even, and this was probably the peak of my time actively playing in the sport, represented my village team on a few occasions.
North West Norfolk League, Division Three. A flying (in my eyes) right-sided midfielder/winger for 71 Brancaster FC.
Like all footballers, wannabees or not, I remember my debut as if it was the day before yesterday; a bitterly cold Saturday afternoon home game against Flitcham Reserves. I wasn’t even at the game. I’d noted when the team line up had been put up on the door of the local shop the week before, that I was third sub. So I didn’t reckon I’d be needed and stayed at home.
Lewis Grabban had nothing on me; at least he bothered to turn up on the day of the match.
But they did need me, so much so, that the team manager came to my home, dug me out and got me on with about half-an-hour to go. We won 3-1 in the sort of conditions that gave the word ‘icy’ a good name; the sort of good name that might see it bracketed alongside ‘balmy’ and ‘tropical’ in the meteorological lexicon.
My dad, the man who Ted MacDougall once told to “f**k off”, watched the game and gave me the benefit of all his coaching wisdom afterwards, clad, as he was, in about three sweaters, overcoat, hat, scarf and gloves.
“You didn’t run around enough, you didn’t get stuck in. Get in there boy”.
“Dad!” I protested, “I’m not that sort of player”. But he wouldn’t have it. I hadn’t ran around, I hadn’t got stuck in, else got in there, wherever that was – probably ‘in there’ as in boot to opponents testicles or similar.
But that wasn’t how I liked to play the game, not least because I was 6 foot 4 inches of nothing at all who would likely have broken in two if he’d have even tried to ‘get in there’. I could have hidden behind the goalpost at corners and jumped out at the last minute, surprising the unsuspecting defence and goalkeeper who hadn’t even realised I was there.
‘Get stuck in’: the playing mantra of the North West Norfolk League Division Three. And, it occurs to me, of the English game in general. So much so, that the FA should incorporate it in their badge and have it, proud and defiant, in Latin, at the base of the Three Lions.
Adepto adhæsit in
Wouldn’t it look grand? Very regal and classy. A sign of history and tradition. And no-one would need to know what it actually stood for.
Someone, who shall remain anonymous (but only because I can’t remember who it was) once lamented the standard of coaching for young players in the English game, saying that, “… the trouble today is, when we started out, clubs and coaches took young athletes and turned them into footballers. What they do today is take young footballers and turn them into athletes”.
I’ve never forgotten that. It particularly comes to mind when I see two teams lining up alongside one another in a tunnel pre-match and, as they stand there, a few officials, a few suits and other myriad non-playing staff quickly walk past them, prior to their taking the pitch.
And you end up thinking ‘… bloody hell; look at the size of these blokes. They’re all massive.’
Units isn’t the word. Stoke City might have, unlike a leopard, changed their footballing spots a little over the last couple of seasons or so, but it wasn’t so long ago that you looked at them stood there pre-match and it was like looking at eleven massive fridge freezers all stood in a row.
Now I realise that an actual fridge-freezer of those proportions might have been a little more mobile around the pitch than some of its footballing counterparts but even so, you didn’t dare to spill one of these lads’ pints. Hell, if you saw one of them, you’d be more likely to happily pour your own pint over your head as long as it meant they kept away.
Arsenal were the same during the pomp and circumstance of the Viera era ;-). They went unbeaten throughout the whole of the 2003/04 season, mainly thanks, it has to be said, to having a bunch of very talented players to call upon. Yet, for all that, they won most of their games that campaign in the tunnel because the opposition would either look up at them, else take a five minute walk around one of them and think, “…you know, we don’t fancy this”.
But is the tide beginning to turn?
Much of what clubs look for in younger players these days is about what goes on inside their heads rather than how far they can head a ball (or opponent) with it.
Time and time again you’d hear of a player being rejected at a young age because he was, in the clubs eyes, “too small”.
Well, small is good now.
Wes is 5’ 6”. Lionel Messi is 5’ 7”. Maxi Moralez, who has made a very decent career for himself in Argentina and with Atlanta in Serie A is 5’3”. And so on and so forth. Some of the world’s best centre backs of late have been under six feet. Carles Puyol, 5’ 10”. Franco Baresi, 5’ 9”.
You can imagine a young Baresi turning up at somewhere like West Ham or Aston Villa for a trial can’t you?
“What position do you play, son?”
They’d have laughed him out of the place. But not in Italy. Or Spain. Or France for that matter. They look for players who can think, both inside and outside of the box. Players who have that little extra up top – and I don’t mean in inches.
One of the reasons you can tell that attitudes are changing is by asking the average football fan what they’d look for in a new player.
This was very evident after we’d signed Stephen Naismith. Canary folk rejoiced in that he was, and is, a ‘clever’ player, someone who ‘makes things happen… he’s intelligent, a thinker, a talker’.
Whilst, with regard to Timm Klose, we were happy because he is a centre back who ‘…likes to play football, to play with the ball at his feet’.
We’ve had a few centre-halves in our time who probably went an entire ninety minutes without having to see what their feet were doing once. Times (or Timms) are very definitely changing.
Sorry Dad. But no-one’s asking them to ‘get stuck in’ anymore.
I wondered what others thought. What did Norwich fans value in a player? What qualities did they think a young player needed in abundance to have any chance of succeeding at the game?
So I asked the question on Twitter.
No-one offered up ‘power’ as a response. Nor ‘physicality’ or ‘strength’. Not even ‘fitness’ although, in fairness, we should perhaps take that as a given.
And nothing for ‘energy’, ‘physique’ or ‘durability’ either.
The most popular responses were as follows:
I can just see my dad, post-Flitcham Reserves, telling me that I hadn’t shown enough belief or faith whilst was out there.
Yet that is the way that both the coaching of, and playing of, the modern game is going. There is far more emphasis on both the mental and technical side of things now, with many clubs now spending fortunes on the sort of facilities that would have been unheard of outside NASA a few decades ago.
Colney, we hear, is in need of some serious refurbishment and updating. Something you’d question, not unnaturally, were you to be there right now. Acres of lush green pitches as well as the indoor training centre, one which was based on that used by Ajax in Holland.
But as far as the footballing basics are concerned, we’ve still got a lot to be proud of, indeed, to even boast about at Colney. It’s a centre, as is Carrow Road as a ground, that is dedicated to football and those eleven men in yellow and green shirts that represent the club. It comes first, second, third and fourth. The football side of the (*shudder*) business is everything.
And believe me when I say this, that isn’t stating the obvious. There are a lot of clubs where it is, at best, a peripheral aspect of the business, a mere sideshow to the bigger picture.
Where the club is now investing and catching up is with regard to how players are now developed and coached.
It’s technology that we need. Not grass, cones and balls. And that’s why the expense is going to be considerable. Coaching is, after all, now a lot more than running a few laps of the pitch before a quick game of five-a-side.
Take note of the routines they show us of the players in training at Colney. And that’s what we’re allowed to witness.
Everything, from warm-up exercises to coaching routines and drills to warming down has gone hi-tech. If a player makes a run, mis-hits a pass or takes a shot, then someone, somewhere, is recording it, analysing it and producing a report about it and that player. Every day and over the entire season. And, like it or not, there will soon be areas of Colney that look like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.
And that’s Captain Picard’s Enterprise. Not Jim Kirk’s.
Football 2016. It’s all about the psychology of the game, the footballing intelligence of the players and their belief, their dedication and their faith. And their in-game stats.
Football 2016. Massive, irrevocable change. Like continental drift on speed.
There’s still time to get ‘stuck in’ mind you. As in getting stuck into that mound of stats that ProZone would have churned out post-Liverpool.
I bet that made for some interesting analysis.
Yet having said all of that, I’d still give anything to see Duncan Forbes, in his playing prime, getting stuck in, old school style, against Tottenham on Tuesday.
Getting stuck in? Gone.
But not entirely forgotten.