The 15th April is always a sad day in the English footballing calendar.
On this day in 1989, ninety six people went to watch the team they love, much like many of us do week in week out, but what should have been a celebratory day out ended in disaster and they never came home.
I will never forget the television images and it is something that will live with me, and any other football fan that watched it unfold.
24th May 2011. Ian Brown, former frontman of Manchester based Indie sensations the Stone Roses will sing classic Roses tune “This is the One” as Manchester United take to the field against Juventus for Gary Neville’s Testimonial game.
What a send off, and for me a fitting one. For Neville, in my opinion was the finest right back of his generation, and one that England haven’t replaced. Now, I appreciate that, this isn’t going to be popular opinion. Neville is what you might call a “marmite” player. You either love him or you hate him. I fall firmly into the former category. Neville is a player that everybody would love to have in their team(bare with me). He played every minute in a Manchester United and England shirt like a fan would. Passion, doesn’t do it justice.
Just look at his exploits with his M62 neighbours. The derby games between the two biggest clubs in English football is one of the best there is, and certainly overshadows both their respective same city encounters. Neville almost took on the role of pantomime villain in these games, most famously fist pumping, and badge kissing in front of the Liverpool fans after one victory. But that is how a fan would celebrate, and that is the kind of thing that fans love to see their players do, but hate from the opposition. I got the impression that he knew how fans felt in particular situations. I can remember a couple of disappointing England games where he stayed out on the pitch and clapped every section of the crowd, long after his teammates had skulked off down the tunnel. Neville cared.
Some would say Neville was a whiner, and perhaps he was, but you could tell that he played every second with his heart on his sleeve and sometimes that would spill over into over enthusiasm. But for once, he was a player that people disliked only for his antics on the pitch. Off it, Neville didn’t cut the figure that many a modern day footballer does. You never saw pictures of him in the tabloids doing anything controversial, no falling drunk out of nightclubs, or leaving with “mystery blondes”. Neville comes across as a quiet, and unassuming family man away from the game, I’m sure much to the delight of Sir Alex, and his professionalism was often remarked upon.
But Nevilles career, was not all about professionalism and passion. He was also a great player. Another success story fromt he early 90’s youth setup at Old Trafford, Neville may never have had the flair, or ability of a Scholes or a Beckham, but he carved out a long and successful tenure as a dependable defender who was also a great crosser of the ball. It is tantamount to the man, that he started his career and ended it at the very top. How many play 19 seasons without leaving the top three places in the Premier League? Somewhat rewarded for his loyalty to United, but you can hardly picture him playing for anybody else, and one club men are hard to come by these days!
While his club career was trophy laden, his international career of course wasn’t, but then what Englishman’s is? Neville hit the scene at just the right time for England. Paul Parker’s fine run as England right back was over, Lee Dixon and Rob Jones flirted with the position, and even the likes of David Bardsley, Earl Barrett and Warren Barton had a go, but we were crying out for someone as dependable as Neville. Nevilles right hand side partnership with his best mate David Beckham was a joy to watch in the late 90’s early 00’s and I for one am sure, that Beckham’s glittering England career may not have been as successful without his reliable clubmate behind him. 85 caps is a record for England right backs, which certainly isn’t to be scoffed at. Neville’s doubters will always say he lacked competition for the place, but I don’t buy that. Jamie Carragher and Danny Mills were both kept at bay by Neville and in truth, I am not sure any other competition would have succeeded either and since he left the international scene, we have struggled in that area again, Glen Johnson, still not looking the part. Neville’s class was not lost on old foe Carragher “For me he’s the best full-back the Premier League’s had. And also just behind David Beckham probably one of the best crossers of the ball we’ve seen. A great player, great pro and to play at that level for so long is a fantastic achievement so I take my hat off to him.”
There will always be those that dislike Gary Neville, and equally those that regard him as a legend, but I hope that, as he brings the curtain down on a highly succesful career, the majority can admit that they (albeit begrudgingly) respect him.
…..Messrs Taylor, Venables and Hoddle. You are hereby accused of crimes against English Football.
You are responsible for denying the greatest fans in the world the chance to get behind a talent so maverick and so inspiring that he could change a game in a second, for being so negative and “anti-football” that you would rather stick rigidly to your failing shape than accomodate a weaver, or if you will, a genius.
Graham Taylor. You have little to no excuse. Your England side will go down in history as one of the worst ever. Dare I even list the types of players that were capped under your regime? Yet no room for my man? During your tenure, he scored fifty six goals for his club, three for the Under 21’s and was named “PFA Young Player of the Year” yet no call from you?
Where might you have been in Rotterdam with your own free kick specialist? Do I not like that.
Terry Venables. People generally remember you as England manager rather fondly. But you and I know that your achievements at the helm are a bit of a myth. In fact statistically you are no better than Taylor and lost as many games as you won. Euro 96 was a celebration, but let’s face it. We shouldn’t have got past the Spanish. During your spell in the top job, our man scored a further sixty five goals for his club, several of which were “goal of the season winners”, yet you chose to cap him just six times, and give him a total of just 193 minutes on the pitch. Do you think that is a fair chance to impress? Ok, he might not have played for a big club, or be a cockney, or drink at China Whites, but still?
And where did it end Terry? That’s right, as it so often does with England, penalties. This lad wasn’t bad at those either.
Glenn Hoddle. The one that probably hurts the most. You were his hero. You had been in the same boat as him as a player. You should have understood. But just like all the others you overlooked him. You may have the best justification of the three, as your England team was pretty successful, you might have even had a longer run, I know, I know, “you never said them fings”.
During the Hoddle years at England, he scored another thirty goals at club level, some real scorchers, and even, like a good player(take note Chris Sutton) turned up for England B duty and banged in a hat trick. And still you found it necessary to cap him just twice, and give him just 70 minutes on the pitch. Your withdrawal of him at Wembley, 1-0 down against Italy in 1997 and seemingly making him a scapegoat for the defeat ended an International career that never really started, and like those before you, you watched your England team crash out on penalties. You chose to put the nation’s faith in an old lady named Eileen. What we wanted was a genius named Matt.
You could have had:- A freekick specialist, a penalty supremo(just one miss in his career) and a genius on the pitch minus a Gazza like path of self destruction off it. But each and everyone of you chose not to.
The Evidence for the prosecution:-
Exhibit A – “If Matthew Le Tissier was Brazilian he would be in the team every game, and get 100 caps” – Pele(Three time world cup winner)
Exhibit B – “The man I absolutely loved watching as a kid was Matt Le Tissier after seeing the highlights of his extraordinary goals. His talent was out of the norm. He could dribble past seven or eight players but without speed – he just walked past them. For me he was sensational.” – Xavi(Winner 2010 World Cup)
Exhibit C –
8 Caps? 263 minutes on the pitch?
What a disgrace. I was one of the lucky ones. I supported Southampton, and got to see him on a weekly basis, you denied that pleasure to the England fans and those around the world.
Everybody loves a trier, someone who simply won’t quit.
We have been blessed with a few of these over years at the Dell and St. Mary’s, and one that particularly stands out for me is Michael Svensson. I was shocked to see this week that the towering Swede is about to embark on a playing comeback, two and a half years since he last took to the field. This is remarkable anyway, but even more so, when you realise, it isn’t the first time Svensson has done it.
The powerful centre half arrived at St. Mary’s in the summer of 2002, a relative unknown quantity, from French side Troyes. “Killer”, as he was soon to be nicknamed took to the Premier League like the proverbial “duck to water” continuing a strong tradition of Scandinavian success in the English arena. Strong, uncompromising in the air, and fierce in the tackle Svensson became the scourge of many a striker as he played an integral part in Gordon Strachan’s successful 2003 side. Andy Cole was famously on the end of Svensson’s fierce intensity, in a 2-0 Southampton defeat of Blackburn Rovers in 2005. Svensson declaring to the assembled guests in the Mick Channon suite afterwards in true Scandinavian deadpan “Cole was annoying me throughout the game. So I hit him”.
Svensson became a cult hero with Saints, and the downturn in form of the club’s performances on the pitch coincided with his knee problems. Killer missed the entire 2004-05 relegation season, his replacements, the like of Andreas Jakobsson and Callum Davenport were never going to fill the gap. Svensson went on to play just a handful more games for Saints until the club, with heavy hearts released him in 2007, and seemingly a great career had been cut short……
……in August 2008 Michael Svensson, aged 32 and having not been with a club for over a year, re-signed for Southampton and was installed as Captain. People were naturally sceptical, but “Killer” completed the full 90 minutes in the opening game of the 2008/09 season, some twenty-one months since his last competitive game. Sadly, it wasn’t to last, and he played just three more full games before joining Mark Wotte’s backroom team, and surely now this was the end of Svensson’s playing career.
But. Perhaps not. Svensson headed back to Sweden and former club Halmstads BK as assistant manager in 2009, having seemingly officially retired, but now he has his sights firmly set on leaving the technical area and getting back amongst it again.
I doubt there is a Saints fan around that won’t be hoping this latest attempt at a return goes to plan for Killer, I for one will be looking out for Halmstads team lineups from now on. Just one glimpse of the red haired man with the ice cold stare doing what he does best and scathing down(ball first) an onrushing attacker could get the blood pumping and the crowd going. What would we give for a “Killer” now?
So I thought it was about time I gave you an update on my training exploits.
As the title suggests, I have learned some valuable lessons as I start to push myself a bit further. Interestingly, I have already come a long way. The last time I wrote about my running, I was struggling over a couple of miles. Now, I am pretty comfortable at that distance and am regularly running around the four mile mark.
I am still struggling with the dreaded stitch, anyone got a good preparation suggestion to prevent these? They always seem to strike when I am at my most comfortable.
Anyway the things I have learned that I have well and truly taken onboard are the following.
1. Don’t run past Eegons on a Saturday Morning. The smell of a big, greasy fry up is not the best motivational idea. I wonder if I tied a sausage to some sort of headpiece….
2. Don’t when approaching a friend(who is a seasoned long distance runner) coming the other way, speed up in some shameful show of male bravado. Yes, everybody likes a Top Gun style, mid run High Five, but you will pay for it, for the rest of your run.
3. Do play Basketball for the works team on a Tuesday night. Sweating, doesn’t even do it justice. Dripping. My feeble attempts to even get close to the monster on the other team counted for three days workout in one.
4. Don’t run in front of early morning seafront photographers. Thankfully I had the dulcet tones of Gary Numan and “Cars” in my ears, so I had to rely on my lipreading skills to let you know what he said. “Muddy Lick”, not sure what he was getting at….
5. Do go running after Saints drop points. You will look like a lunatic to other people you encounter with your angry grumblings, but your pace will considerably improve!
Sometimes, you start something and you know it isn’t quite finished! That is how I felt after the first “Kids are all Wight” article.
The feedback I had to it was astonishing, and now I have a much broader appreciation of Island pros, pre my generation. To that end, I thought it only fitting and fair that I write a follow up, celebrating the talents of those Islanders that made the grade long before my time, and in an era that would have made it even harder for a young man from the Isle of Wight to be snapped up by the professional clubs.
Ferry travel, was not as regular as it is now for the youngsters of the Island, making it tough for them to attend trials, the last ferries home often way too early, not to mention the expense, this coupled with a non-existent scouting setup meant talented lads had to shine for the bigger Island clubs and hope for the best.
The first to defy this and “make the grade” and perhaps the most well known of Island footballers was Roy Shiner.
Shiner, a carpentry apprentice from Seaview first caught the eye of Birmingham City while playing for East Cowes Vics during the Second World War, but was persuaded from attending a trial by his father(a brief top level player himself, so perhaps aware of the pitfalls) who urged him to continue with his trade. Shiner did however attend trials with Wolverhampton Wanderers and Portsmouth, neither of which were successful, before signing for Ryde Sports.
Shiner was prolific up front for Ryde, notably smashing 50 goals in the 1947/48 Hampshire League Season, big things were not far away for Roy. In fact just two seasons later, after starring in a match for the Isle of Wight representative team against Gloucestershire, Shiner was signed part time by Southern League side Cheltenham Town. Roy couldn’t have had a better start, scoring the only goal in his Southern League debut in October 1949.
Roy spent just two seasons at Whaddon Road, before a pre-season friendly against Wolves in 1951 made his dream a reality. Huddersfield Town had a representative in the crowd and Roy was on his way to Division One!
Shiner didn’t made his top flight debut until Christmas Day of that year, and first team appearances were few and far between as he struggled to adapt at this new level. After just twenty one games and six goals in three years at Leeds Road he moved on, signing for Division two club Sheffield Wednesday.
This turned out to be the best decision of Roy’s career. Roy scored goals for fun in the blue and white stripes of Hillsbrough. In a four year spell from 1955 to 1959, he found the net 93 times in 153 league appearances, and established himself as a top level goalscorer. He was part of the Wednesday side that twice won the Division Two championship, all be it coupled with two relegations, and became a terrace favourite for the Owls.
A now 34 year old Roy moved on again in 1959, even further North to Hull City, but despite scoring eight goals, he was only to last one season. Injuries began to take their toll and Shiner accepted that his football league career was finished. Roy went back to Cheltenham and had a spell as player/manager, before completing the circle of his career and returning to the Island in 1962, taking the managerial reigns at Seaview and later those of Newport, East Cowes Vics and St Helens Blue Star.
A true shining light in the arena of Island footballers, Roy sadly passed away in 1988, but his legacy and impact on Island football will never be forgotten.
Another name that was mentioned to me several times was that of Wes Maughan. From Cowes, 19 year old Maughan signed for Southampton in 1958 and over a four year spell played six times for the Saints first team and scored one goal before moving on to Reading. He had a bigger impact at Elm Park, scoring three times in sixteen games before heading to Chelmsford City in 1963 and eventually returning to the Island.
Jim Watts from Cowes spent a season with Gillingham in 1956/57, playing in twelve games and scoring one goal in Division Three(South), where he went from there, though, I cannot find out.
Wayne Talkes was the next to hit the professional game. From Brading, although originally London, Talkes signed for Southampton in 1969, a long locked midfielder, Talkes stayed at the Dell until 1974 despite only playing nine first team games. He was loaned to Doncaster Rovers before becoming the first in the long line of Islanders to play for Bournemouth.
It was the eighties before another Islander could make the step up. 20 year old Cowes lad Gareth Williams found his way to the heady heights of Villa Park and the first division via East Cowes Vics and Gosport Borough in 1987. Williams racked up an impressive 225 football league appearances over a thirteen year professional career that ended at Hull City in the year 2000. As well as Aston Villa and Hull, he had spells at Barnsley, Bournemouth, Northampton Town and Scarborough before playing for a few Non-League sides, eventually becoming player/manager of Matlock Town.
So we come back full circle to where I started in the first article, the 90’s to the 00’s. I did do a couple of Island players from that era a disservice, by not mentioning them.
Aaron Cook from Cowes, was signed by Portsmouth in 1998 and had a loan spell at Crystal Palace after impressing Terry Venables, but it didn’t quite work out for him. Since then though, he has forged a distinguished Non-League career, notably with Havant & Waterlooville and Salisbury City.
Danny Hatcher had a spell with Leyton Orient between 2000/03 playing sixteen games for the London club before returning to play for his hometown team Newport.
So there we have it, another instalment, but perhaps not the last? There may be more from the past, that we know little about, and hopefully there will be more in the future, what is clear to me now, is that while we may not be the hotbed of footballing talent that bigger, more dense areas of the country are, for a place of our size and population we are certainly making ourselves heard!
Many thanks go to Brian Greening, Brian Marriott, Nick Reed and Mike Payne for their help and information on this.
It was plain sailing for Newport as they cruised to a 5-0 victory over Northwood St. Johns in the Gold Cup Semi Final at Westwood Park last night.
The Wessex league outfit showed their superiority from the off and it didn’t take long for them to break the deadlock, a deep looping cross from left back Graham Stay fooled everyone, including the Northwood keeper and dipped into the top corner.
Things went from bad to worse for the Island League side soon after, Charlie Shaw turning a Newport cross into his own net to give the team in yellow a two goal advantage.
Northwood kept working hard, but Iain Seabrook in seemingly acres of space in the centre of the park was running the show.
Paul Sleep’s men put the tie beyond any doubt soon after the break, Seabrook rewarded for his endeavours in midfield scoring the third goal, slotting a low finish into the bottom corner.
A scramble in the box from another left wing cross led to the fourth, the Northwood defence failing to deal with it, before the ball rebounded off of the post from the eventual clearance and into the back of the net.
The left flank was proving to be a fruitful avenue of attack for the Port as Darren Powell volleyed home the fifth.
Northwood came alive in an attacking sense in the last ten minutes, but couldn’t find a way through and Gary Streeter in the Newport goal never looked troubled.
It was a dominant performance from the Wessex league side, but credit to Northwood who never stopped working or let their heads drop.
Newport will now face fellow Wessex League side Brading Town in the Final.
It was with little surprise to Saints fans, when Jason Puncheon scored the consolation goal in Blackpool’s 1-3 defeat by Premier League Champions Chelsea last night.
You see, Puncheon has become somewhat of a phenomenon amongst the St. Mary’s faithful this season. I am not sure if he is the first and only player to go on loan from a League One side to a Premier League team, but I am sure there can’t be many?
So how does a League One player end up on loan in the promised land? He must have been having a cracking season for Saints right? Wrong.
Puncheon signed for Saints in January 2010, and came with warnings to me from fans of both Plymouth Argyle, his parent club and MK Dons where he had been on loan, that he was very much an enigma, a natural talent no doubt, but often lacking the required attitude. I often take the opinions of fans on an outgoing player with a pinch of salt, as they may come with a drop of bitterness, and I thought this was the case when Puncheon hit the ground running in a Saints shirt.
Puncheon quickly established himself as the first choice on the right wing, producing mesmerising energetic performances and chipping in with the odd goal, as Saints made a late push for promotion. Firmly becoming a fans favourite, it looked like alongside Jose Fonte, then Saints boss Alan Pardew had signed one of the crucial final pieces of the Saints jigsaw.
As has been well documented something, somewhere didn’t go to plan in the summer. Saints had a poor start to a season, in which expectation was high. Puncheon was one of those who didn’t look himself, his performances looked lethargic and unenthusiastic. The crowd began to get on his back and to make matters worse for Puncheon, his drop in form coincided with the emergence of talented teenager Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Saints parted company with Alan Pardew at the end of August last year, and this spelled the beginning of the end for Puncheon. New boss Nigel Adkins found less and less requirement for Puncheon to start games due to the impressive and match winning performances of Chamberlain. Rumours spread of a training ground bust up, and it was with little pre-warning that Puncheon joined Championship side Millwall on loan in November. After his lacklustre performances at League One level this season, Saints fans couldn’t believe their eyes as Puncheon scored the winning goal on his debut for the Lions and went on to help himself to five goals in seven games at the higher level. He looked like a completely different player, in fact he looked like the 2009/10 Puncheon as he terrorised the Championship’s defences.
Several comments in the media by Puncheon made it pretty clear that he wanted to stay at Millwall, including remarks about being at a club where he felt loved and wanted. He even mentioned being prepared to take a paycut. Unfortunately for Millwall and the player, it was pretty obvious that they wouldn’t be able to meet Saints asking price for the player or for that matter match his wages.
Puncheon returned to Saints in January, and found himself in the starting lineup for the FA Cup victory over Premier League Blackpool and the draw with Notts County but after far from Millwall level performances, it was rumoured that he was back on the bench for the trip to Tranmere, but refused to travel. This was speculation of course, but I don’t think many were surprised when Puncheon left on loan again at the end of January. This time though his destination was the Premier League, could it be that a player that that couldn’t hold down a place in a League One side was going to play regularly at the highest level?
Puncheon hasn’t necessarily nailed down a place as first choice at Bloomfield Road, but when called upon his performances have been again energetic and eye catching. His goal last night against the reigning champions was his second in just three games for the Lancashire outfit.
I think it is clear that Puncheon’s differing performance standards have nothing to do with ability or the level he is playing at, but more about desire. Something about his time at Saints went wrong and his desire to play for the club had gone in my opinion. His almost instant success at two other clubs playing at higher levels would seem to prove this.
Some players need to be first choice, and need to have an arm put round them, it certainly isn’t that Puncheon isn’t “good enough” to get in the Saints team, but his drop in desire and form coinciding with the mercurial rise of Chamberlain meaning he had to fight with a 17 year old(all be it a 17 year old being coveted by some of Europe’s top clubs), which may have been difficult for Puncheon to swallow.
I have always had a hard line in my opinion with players who have temper tantrums and attitude issues, as no player should be bigger than or dictate their position to the club, therefore if the rumours of Puncheon’s outbursts are true, particularly the refusal to travel, then for me he should have played his last game for the club. I think he made it clear during his time at Millwall that he didn’t want to be here, and by proving himself at Premier League level, would suggest a permanent move won’t be far away.
The worrying thing for Puncheon is, that if he doesn’t settle somewhere soon he is in danger of being labelled a journeyman. Ten different clubs already in a relatively short career is pretty high, and it makes you wonder if settling in is his biggest problem.
I for one shall be watching the rest of his career with great interest, and hope he doesn’t become another wasted potential.
Having been lucky enough to visit the beautiful city of Edinburgh over the last few days, I have come to the conclusion that it is a Rugby town, or at least that is what they would like you to believe.
The first thing of note that I could see on the skyline as I drove into the city was Murrayfield, home of the Scottish Rugby Team, in fact this was the most prominent sight from the hotel window and it is an eyesore. Don’t get me wrong I like stadiums, but perhaps because it isn’t a football stadium it seemed a bit dull and ugly.
What I really wanted to see were the stadia of the Scottish capitals two professional football sides. Hibernian and Heart of Midlothian. In the centre of Edinburgh, steeped in history and fantastic architecture there is a distinctly Bohemian feel, and you could be fooled into thinking that there were no football clubs in the area. Overshadowed by their gigantic and famous Glasgow neighbours, both Edinburgh clubs have have joined the ranks of the Scottish Premier Leagues also rans in recent history.
It was no surprise to see many Old Firm shirts in the city centre, and not one of the local teams, or that the cities many souvenir and tat shops are selling Celtic and Rangers paraphernalia and not that of the Hearts or Hibs. In a city that homes over 480,000 people, it shows the level of interest in the clubs that neither team breaks an average of 12-14k people for home games. But don’t that let you think that their isn’t a vibrant footballing rivalry alive and well in the back streets and suburbs!
The first Edinburgh derby was played on Christmas day in 1875, making it one of the oldest rivalries in World Football and there are similarities with the more world renowned Glasgow derby. Hibernian like Celtic were formed by Irish immigrants, reflected in their name and colours while Hearts were founded by the indigenous Scots.
Tynecastle, the home of Hearts and Easter Road, the home of Hibs are situated just under four miles apart. While the city and it’s proudest features are clear for all to see, you have to hunt a little further to find the homes of these two proud football clubs.
Situated in Gorgie, in the West of Edinburgh, Tynecastle is one of those “blink and you’ll” miss it grounds. In an area that is largely downtrodden, the stadium and it’s situation has a distinctly traditional feel and more importantly something that all good football grounds should have. Character. It reminded me of the Dell and to a lesser extent Kenilworth Road, almost looking out of place in it’s location, but at the same time very much part of the area.
In contrast, Easter Road has a much more modern feel to it. Situated in the North of Edinburgh, in Leith, the stadium is all together “cleaner’ and perhaps easier on the eye, more in the light and bright St. Mary’s style(complete with Megastore) than the Tynecastle red brick. Similarly though, it is also hidden away, slightly easier to notice than Tynecastle, but more like a built for purpose stadium area.
What was for certain from both grounds, that I certainly didn’t get from Murrayfield was that aura of atmosphere that you only get at a football stadium. So, while the city seems intent on celebrating it’s Rugby heritage(and why not), it’s “dirty secrets” are bringing pleasure to far more people on a regular basis!
Tynecastle hosts the next Edinburgh derby on April 9th. You can keep your Old Firm, this is the one I’d like to be at…
Well yesterday they did, and what a cup final it was! While I am neither a supporter of Arsenal or Birmingham City, I did find myself favouring the team in blue. Why? Well the terrible decision by the linesman early on instantly made me get behind them, but also the contrasting styles of the teams.
What we had was a clear case of War Horses versus Show Ponies, and I have always been a War Horse fan. Maybe it says something about my own natural lack of footballing talent, that while other kids were being Gazza and Chris Waddle, I was always Stuart Pearce or Terry Butcher on the hallowed concrete of the playground. I tried being Matt Le Tissier a couple of times, but I knew I wasn’t doing him justice so went back to being Glenn Cockerill, in case I somehow did the reputation of the mercurial Saints weaver some unintentional damage.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate a bit of skill, I like the odd stepover, the odd back heel, but like everything in life you need balance and for me watching a “water carrier” like Claude Makalele or Didier Deschamps control the play in midfield with simplicity, energy and efficiency is every bit as majestic as a Messi or a Ronaldo cutting in and sending one home. The importance of the “water carrier” was not lost on the great Eric Cantona who himself coined the phrase based on the influence of Deschamps on the success of the late 90’s French team. Cantona is perhaps one example of a player who managed to be both show pony and war horse!
When I talk about “War Horses” though, I don’t just mean the efficient holding midfielder, but also the do or die player, the man who would put his head where a “Show Pony” wouldn’t put their feet. Is there anything more inspirational to an England fan than the infamous sight of Terry Butcher smothered in his own claret, or Stuart Pearce screaming at the Wembley crowd in Euro 96? Men that lead by example, that inspire confidence in their team-mates and grab the bull by the horns.
This is where the two sides differed on Sunday. Arsenal are the epitome of a show pony side. Full of talent and flair, the likes of Nasri and Arshavin light up the Premier League on a regular basis, and of course recently out-Barca’d Barcelona, the ultimate show ponies. But perhaps what they lack is War Horses, or even a War Horse. It is no surprise to me, that in a game like that, the best player in an Arsenal shirt was Jack Wilshire, a lad who looks to me like finally being the man to fill Bryan Robson’s boots in an England shirt and certainly the closest thing they have to a war horse at the moment.
In comparison, look at the Birmingham team. Nothing shows the contrast more than the names Bowyer and Ferguson in the Blues midfield. Combative and committed to the end these two are unlikely to shy any challenge, especially in a cup final. Alex McLeish has built up a side that works hard and is extremely efficient with the ball. They would never have competed with Arsenal if they tried to play like Arsenal, but by constantly pressing and never saying die, they showed that the gap in skill level could be overcome.
Is it a coincidence that Arsenal haven’t won anything since Patrick Vieira left? A man who is without a doubt a war horse. While Arsenal play breathtaking football at times, even the flair riddled Barcelona line up with a Carlos Puyol at the back, is there anyone taking on that role for Arsenal?
All the truly great sides have a balance of players types. AC Milan in the 80’s owed as much to Franco Baresi as they did to Marco Van Basten, even the Brazilians have relied on a Dunga and what might have been in 1966 without a Nobby Stiles?
The game has certainly changed over the years that I have watched it, but it was refreshing to see that there is still a role to play for the combative battler alongside the pretty ball jugglers.
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