Football has been at the core of a whole new sporting lexicon over the past couple of decades or so.
Words and phrases once either lost or unknown to the English language have attached themselves to the game and become as much a part of its vocabulary as ‘ball’, ‘kick’ and ‘goal’ – three old fashioned and traditional sayings in the game which, of course, form the entirety of any pre-match team talk given by Sam Allardyce.
Exponents of the art have included Ron Atkinson, whose unusual turn of phrase during games he was co-commentating on; nonsensical and off the wall at the time but now uttered by the most respected of coaches and analysts with reference to the game and understood by everyone.
‘Early doors’- everyone says it now in the English game. Similarly ‘lollipop’. When Atkinson first used those expressions I, like anyone else, ended up wondering just what he was talking about – had the man lost it?
How times have changed since. You’d half expect the science of ‘early doors’ to be part of the UEFA ‘A’ coaching certificate today with all the young and ambitious coaches in La Liga preaching the virtues of puertas temprano as an alternative to another modern day mantra of the game, tiki-taka -though that is by no means a modern day footballing phenomena as anyone who watched that skilful Hungarian team dismantle England to the tune of 6-3 at Wembley in 1953.
Odd isn’t it that, for a footballing nation that sees fit to celebrate and venerate any and all times when its national team have been the subject of something worthy, there was little or no mention of the sixty-year anniversary of that game being played last year.
But why not? After all, it was a time and a match when, after an eternity of believing we were the masters of the game as well as the world; those most antiquated training and tactical practices employed by the FA were illustrated as being just that by the infinitely more technically and tactically superior Hungarian team.
Sixty years on and a succession of tournaments and opposition have shown that we have still done nothing about it – surely dithering of the highest order that needs celebrating?
But I digress. Although not entirely without reason as we will see.
Another phrase that has come to the fore in the game of late is one that, in view of the positional anonymity that the squad numbers systems gives a player, champions a certain shirt number and all the connotations that go with it. And, given the technical paucity which I think still remains in many areas of our game, the number in question does, at least, involve a position and player type who defies that steady ‘meat and two veg’ approach to the English game. It is, of course, the shirt with the number 10 on its back.
The wearer of that shirt number for Hungary in that soon to be forgotten (by the English) game at Wembley was Ferenc Puskas; gloatingly referred to by the English team before the match as the “little fat chap” and as readily dismissed as a player as was his team. This was despite the fact that Hungary had won the Olympic title the previous year and were undefeated in three seasons prior to the game.
The contrast between Puskas and his contemporary in England’s number 10 shirt was as wide as the gulf that divided the nations at the time. Sewell, who played for Sheffield Wednesday was the archetypal English forward-fast, physical and not totally adverse to the odd shoulder barge if getting a goal meant depositing the keeper, as well as the ball, into the back of the net. He was effective at what he did – 87 goals in 164 league games for the Owls were testimony to that – but, in doing what he did, he had all the finesse, all the technical ability of a wardrobe.
Puskas, on the other hand, was a magician. In terms of his modern day peers, perhaps the best comparison I can make is that of Paul Gascoigne. He, like Puskas, was mocked for his body shape and seemingly ungainly figure yet he could do things with a football that most players were incapable of thinking about, never mind attempting for themselves. And he was a classic number 10 – even though it was rarely the number he wore. Drifting in that no mans land between midfield and attack; prompting, cajoling, caressing the ball and making things happen; often doing so before his slower and less able teammates were able to work it out for themselves.
Bobby Robson famously called Gazza, “as daft as a brush”. Maybe. But on the football pitch he was a Michelangelo; one who, more often than not, was surrounded by ten naff prints from Athena.
Which was the case with Puskas. English players and spectators alike mocked his look and build yet he shrugged that criticism off as easily as he did the attentions of Billy Wright and the other helpless, sometimes hapless England defenders – one of whom would, eventually, buck the national trend and win a World Cup.
Needless to say, England’s humiliation was seen as a one-off. A fluke result, an aberration. The FA duly accepted, without a second thought, the invitation from their Hungarian colleagues to play a return match in Budapest the following May. You can bet your last penny that they wouldn’t have considered it had England won at Wembley. But no, this was personal. It was time to rub Johnny Foreigners nose in it and remind him who was the boss, who was the footballing ‘Daddy’. England arrived, made eight changes to the team that had lost so humiliatingly at Wembley – and proceeded to lose 7-1; Puskas leading the orchestra again and contributing two goals of his own.
A legend had been born as had the shirt number he wore. There has been a certain allure to the number 10 shirt ever since.
One that hasn’t gone entirely unnoticed at Carrow Road.
Our own number 10 at the time Hungary arrived at Wembley stadium and, like one of those massive spaceships in Independence Day they blasted a hole in English football from which we’ve never truly recovered, was, well, take your pick. Both the shirt number and its position on the field of play seemed to have a bit of an identity crisis during that 1953/54 season with seven different Canaries sporting it at some point or another during that 52 game campaign.
The most frequent holder of the shirt was Bobby Brennan who wore it 19 times – out of a total of 46 appearances that season. However, it also adorned the yellow and green backs of Johnny Summers (9), Johnny Gavin (8), Alan Woan (5), Tony Collins (2), Billy Coxon (2) and even, on one occasion (and for all the great things that can be said about the man, he wasn’t a Puskas-type player), Ron Ashman.
So, whilst Puskas, and, in later years players like Eusebio, Rivera, Cubillas, Pele, Cruyff, Zidane and Messi have typified the artistry and genius that goes hand in hand with the number, it remained, for many years, as enigmatic a number as the wearer themselves; both at Carrow Road and in English football as a whole – then and, crucially, now.
Maybe Norwich’s first ‘true’ exponent of the arts that came with the shirt was Graham Paddon?
Ironic, really, that a player with so much natural ability and a tendency for the brilliantly unpredictable was spotted and nurtured by a man who you might think would regard such gifts as anathema. For Ron Saunders, the man who signed Paddon for the Canaries from Coventry City, was seen as managerial ‘old school’ when Paddon joined Norwich in October 1969. Saunders expected his teams to be fit, physical and to run as if they had never ran before. Often, as those who witnessed his famous pre-season training routines on the slopes of Mousehold, to the point of collapse.
It was effective. He won a Second Division Championship for Norwich in addition to taking us to Wembley for the very first time in 1973. Yet, despite all the endeavour and hard work that typified his promotion winning side and the one, slightly tweaked, for First Division football the following campaign, Saunders knew that a touch of genius would be needed to make the whole thing work. So he built his first great Norwich side around the talents of Paddon; our club’s first real experience of the player type and the position and one which we have held close to our footballing hearts ever since.
Paddon didn’t even look like a Saunders player, never mind play like one. In a team that was typified by craggy looking chaps, all muscle, sinew and sensible haircuts, he stood out, those long blond locks and 70s beard standing out on the field as he orchestrated proceedings – with or without the ball. In other words, he stood out.
Like Puskas did two decades before him. His first touch was so good that he rarely needed a second one – on the rare occasion that he did, it was invariably a howitzer of a shot that, more often than not, found the back of the net. He contributed eight goals during the Championship winning season of 1971/72, plus a further 12 the following season – a tally that included a memorable hat-trick against Arsenal in the League Cup at Highbury.
It must have broken John Bond’s cultured footballing heart to part with Paddon as part of the deal that took Ted MacDougall to Norwich from West Ham in November 1973. Yet it was only a means to an end. Bond needed MacDougall to score goals – nothing else; a fact that was just as well as Ted would have volunteered to do little else anyway. Thus the terrible price that the club had to pay for Ted’s goals was the loss of Paddon. But it was that means to an end with Paddon eventually rejoining Bond at Carrow Road in 1976.
The number 10 shirt that Paddon wore so regally flitted around several different owners in the immediate post-Paddon era. All of them were capable players – if not the type of player that the shirt demanded. Thus we saw the likes of Keith Bertschin, Peter Mendham and Mike Phelan come and go. Good players, popular players. But never a number 10, not in that most traditional of senses.
That is, until Ian Crook arrived on the scene.
Crook ,like Puskas, didn’t look like a typical footballer. Infact he just looked like the average man in the street. Everything about him looked unremarkable. Plus he liked a can of Coke. And the odd cigarette. Hardly, even back in the 1990s, the professional athlete. And yet, when he put that number 10 shirt on for Norwich, something happened. It was as if Clark Kent had ran into the phone box and exploded out of it as Superman – but still looking like Clark Kent.
According to one ex-Norwich player I have spoken to, Crook was nothing special in training and was often the recipient of the garishly coloured shirt for the worse performer. He’d show up, fag in one hand, Mars bar in the other, looking more like a fan out for players autographs than the fulcrum of the team. His ability and presence on the pitch therefore verged on the supernatural.
Next time you get the chance to watch the Norwich team of his time in action, keep an eye on him. Playing wise, he was as much a dancer or a gymnast as a footballer; the manner and body shape he took and held as he played those defence splitting passes as much part of their repertoire as it was a footballer’s.
We talk of teams needing to have a good shape. Crook took that requirement on personally, striking the proverbial pose with every pass played or shot taken. He was almost balletic to watch at times, something that was in striking contrast to his reputation as more of a beer and ciggies man.
And so, through a combination of that sublime and the occasionally ridiculous we come through to the modern game; the here and now and the demands that we have all been hearing since the summer, the need for a “number ten” in the side.
Not a player’s name or position you note, or even the type of player. Merely the number on the back of the shirt. Mention it to friends and footballing colleagues and see them nod sagely at your declaration that we need a “number ten”. Everyone knows what it means even if not everyone knows who it should or could be. But we all agree what it should be. That maverick, the player who can change the course of a game, a season even, in an instant. A pass that carves open a previously impenetrable opposing defence with alarming ease; a back heel that takes out three players as well as, in all likelihood, a teammate or two-or a chip of such exquisite beauty that you want to plot the balls trajectory on a graph and keep it forever – living proof that football and mathematics can occupy the same page.
I feel like that every time I watch David Fox’s pass to Jacko at Fratton Park; a thing of beauty that got us a goal and promotion.
I had previously thought, of course, that we already had a “number 10 “ at Norwich – the player that fits the role that is, even if his squad number is 14, one I can’t help associate with someone who spends most of his time on the bench – an apt number therefore, given his lack of starts this season.
I talk, of course, of Wes Hoolahan.
Wes is as much a number ten as both Paddon and Crook were before him. He doesn’t particularly look like a footballer. More, I would say, the onetime rebellious lead guitarist of Nine Inch Nails or Belle and Sebastien. He eschews the Baby Bentley obsession, choosing instead his sporty little black Audi or the Vespa. And, I dare say, he prefers a quiet night in to painting the town red with the lads – except that we wouldn’t know for certain as he doesn’t exactly fall over himself to talk to the media, national or local.
Another maverick therefore, in both football and life. Wes would, I suspect, enjoy chewing the fat with Ian Crook. Over a glass of Coke. Somewhere quiet.
And therein lies the problem with Wes and all the players like him in the game today. The very reason that they stand out, both, as I said above, in both football and life in general is because they choose not to stand out. And for that I pity them and the game of football as it lurches its way, belching heavily, into the middle of this second decade of the 21st Century.
Because managers and coaches like conformity. Discipline, shape, rigidity, maintaining the defensive line. Space is only important if it’s the space on the pitch that you have been allocated. And woe betide you if you choose to stray somewhere you shouldn’t be. Which is what a Puskas would have done. And a Paddon. A Crook too. And most definitely a Wes. Because that was, and is, the nature of the beast and of the player. To roam, explore, to seek out possibilities and to defy. The definitive number ten.
Look at some of the great and good who have also worn that shirt over the years in English football. Tony Currie. Frank Worthington. Stan Bowles. Charlie George. Alan Hudson. Glenn Hoddle. And Paul Merson. A magnificent seven, no question. Yet how many England caps did they get between them?
One hundred and six.
You’d like to think someone like Hoddle would have reached a century of England caps – and then some. As things stand, with 53 senior England appearances (the same as, at the time of writing, Gareth Barry) he is easily the biggest hitter, internationals wise, of that group. But that’s still about half of how many he should have got. Alan Hudson made only two appearances for England for goodness sake. James Milner on the other hand, seemingly everything that a manager or coach looks for in a modern player – dependable, reliable, safe, disciplined, ‘can do a job’ – is almost certain to get his 50th cap by the end of this year and will, injury permitting, be a shoe-in for England’s World Cup squad.
Now I’m not going to be fashionable and knock Milner. Every team needs its steady Eddie; the, as so aptly attributed to Didier Deschamps by Eric Cantona, ‘water carriers’. And indeed they do. But Deschamps made a total of 103 appearances for France. Cantona, on the other hand, ‘just’ 45. But at least Eric wasn’t English – he might have struggled to match Alan Hudson had that been the case.
With rare exceptions therefore, players of that ilk have long been mistrusted by international managers, notably in England as that list above testifies. Yet that distrust, that suspicion, now seems to have seeped, insidiously down into the domestic game – with Wes one of its unfortunate victims.
We’ve been discussing on this site over the last few weeks about how the new mantra in English football is not “win” but “don’t lose”. Off the pitch, in terms of entertainment value, the biggest losers have been the fans – who are reminded, almost on a daily basis that, ‘football is not part of the entertainment industry, it is a business’.
We might be beginning to accept that. But it doesn’t mean we like it.
But now the players are feeling the corporate pinch as well. For Wes, his regular omission from the starting XI isn’t about what he isn’t, it’s about what he is – in other words, he is out of favour because of his good points, not his bad ones. He’s an unwilling victim of his own unique ability. Put another way, his positives have become negatives. He offers magic and the stuff that footballing dreams are made of. But modern day managers don’t want the glitter anymore. They want magnolia.
And because he isn’t a James Milner, there seems like there is little future for him and players like him in the game. Unless you are a Messi or a Ronaldo in which case your club can afford to surround you with players so exquisitely talented in their own right, they can cover for you whilst you go off and do your devastating thing. Which is something Norwich can’t afford to do. Ever.
The modern game is leaving players like Wesley Hoolahan behind. I wonder if we shall ever see the likes of him in a Norwich shirt again?