Sunday, August 3, 2008

Best of British: John Robertson and Neville Southall – MouthoftheMersey

Pseuds regulars offer their take on the best five British footballers of the last 50 years

Considering nominees for the five best British footballers of the last fifty years presents methodological and philosophical issues. I wish to address these first.

My methodology disallows me from choosing any player whom I did not see in the flesh or regularly on television. So Best’s immense reputation, Charlton’s trophies and Moores’ imperiousness count for nothing. My methodology also allows me to pick from a player’s best years and not discount them against a long decline. Philosophically, I rule out the huffers and puffers and the artistes who never won very much that really mattered (since that is the object of the game). So no Bryan Robson and no Glenn Hoddle.

John Robertson and Neville Southall have much in common. Neither were natural athletes, barely athletes at all, though Robertson played an astonishing 243 consecutive games through Forest’s glory years from December 1976 to December 1980 and Southall racked up 750 appearances for Everton. Both blossomed as players quite late at an age when Cesc Fabregas will have played 300 games or so. The key to their success was the understanding that the game is a simple one, in which Robertson’s job was to beat his full back and pass the ball to a man in a goalscoring position and Southall’s job was to stop the ball going into the net. Crucially, both players had managers who recognised this simplicity in approach and indulged their star player’s foibles (Southall’s eccentricity, Robertson’s smoking). In return for that faith and indulgence, they delivered multiple trophies at national and international level and are held in the highest respect by fellow pros and fans the world over.

I recall Southall’s first few games for Everton in the 1981-82 season. He had been signed from Bury (how times change) and was vying for a place with Jim Arnold, a solid, but uninspiring keeper. Neville, unkempt in his green jersey, would shamble on to the pitch for his warm-up, but come alive as the crosses were slung in and the shots saved. Once the match started, we saw that he had no weaknesses: his positioning was perfect; his catching of the high ball immaculate; his shot stopping, especially at close range, spectacular; his speed off the line surprising; and his bravery and temperament unimpeachable. We muttered to ourselves that with this man in goal, we were going to win things. I have only had that feeling once in the intervening 27 years about a goalkeeper. I saw one of Peter Scmeichel’s first games for Manchester United: we left Goodison muttering those same thoughts, this time about the opposition. Schmeichel and Southall – the two best goalkeepers I’ve ever seen.

In a race with Ryan Giggs from the halfway line to the goalline, Ryan would be careering into the net as John Robertson just entered the D, already blowing hard. But Robertson was the fastest player I ever saw over one yard, and that was all he needed to play the killer ball. It helped that Robertson didn’t really run at all, he just paused, waiting, then shuffled and passed. He didn’t tackle back (but he never gave the ball away either) and was always an out ball for a defence under pressure and was, therefore, not a maverick but a team man in every sense. He was never prolific as a goalscorer, though he got 12 in Forest’s Title winning season, but he always seemed to score vital goals, including the one that won Forest’s second European Cup (after presenting Trevor Francis with an unmissable chance to win Forest’s first).

Robertson’s biggest fan was his manager Brian Clough, who knew a bit about players. There are many quotes attributed to Clough concerning Robertson, but my favourite (possibly apocryphal, but true in a larger sense) concerns a half-time team talk. A young substitute is being briefed by Clough, “… And when you get the ball, young man, just give it to The Genius”. The substitute, confused and intimidated, hesitantly points across at the first £1M player, scorer of the goal that won the European Cup, the footballing thoroughbred Trevor Francis. “Not him - HIM!” shouts Clough pointing at a slump shouldered, slightly overweight Scotsman puffing on a fag. Genius indeed.

14 comments:

Andrew Sherman said...

By ruling out huffers/puffers and artistes you rule out anyone who actually tries... I guess you end up with lazy sods like Southall and Robertson. The alternative is someone who looks like they're not trying. Also you need someone who played for Everton. I give you the greatest footballer of the last 50 years: Gary Lineker.

MotM said...

Well Neville certainly wasn't trying that famous half-time when he sat down on his own by the goalpost!

Lineker scored 40 odd goals in his one season at Everton, finishing it by winning the Golden Boot at the World Cup and was then transferred for £2.2M to Barcelona - very murky. Still, we won the Title the next season, so we didn't really care!

andrewm said...

It's been too long, Mouth. Pseuds should pay you for stuff like this.

So you exclude players who didn't win enough? Interesting. I'm inclined to agree, but then a great career is one thing and perhaps a great player is another. Is Gary Neville a great player? Would a league title make Gerrard a modern great, or does he need success with England as well?

I'd like to say something about Southall and Robertson, but let's just say you're right, as always.

MotM said...

AndrewM - You've got me blushing!

An interesting point. Honours do not make great players (Phil Neal, I'm afraid addressing a Red, rather proves that point) but I think it's hard to be a Great Player without winning the top trophies. It's why le Tissier is a great player, but not a Great Player. Gary Neville is a good player.

Hope that makes sense - head a bit full of Michael Vaughan - but it was nice to escape him for a while and scribble out a bit about Nev and Robertson.

andrewm said...

Well, I think with so much going on in the cricket world you've really outdone yourself here.

You realise that all this flattery is supposed to make you write more articles? Didn't work with offside, or miro for that matter, but it's my only tactic.

Zephirine said...

As all Pseuds knows it's no use me commenting on football, but it's really nice to see the site busy again.

Chanelle has a report on the Vaughan situation on her blog.

guitougoal said...

that's what we call "personal appearance for a marketing purpose miss Zephirine.Well done.

Margin said...

I'm so pleased some one else picked John Robertson. I get so tired of explaining to people who he was and why he was important now that Forest have fallen as far as they have.

Ebren said...

While I agree with Roberston's inclusion - Jinky has got to be up there as the best Scottish winger of the last 50 years. Possibly not better, but certainly on a par.

offsideintahiti said...

I'll echo Zeph's comment, great to see the site busy again.

Excellent spate of articles, Mouth, Ebren, Margin (and Andy for the commentary). I have no idea who the best British player of the past 50 years should be (and I think it's a bit pointless, if you ask me), but I have really enjoyed reading about your favourites (I think these lists are only interesting from a subjective point of view anyway).

Thanks for the stories and anecdotes, I've learned a lot.

bluedaddy said...

Late to this, shame on me.

Nev Southall and John 'How the fuck did that chubby bastard just beat me yet again?' Robertson were players to make you smile. Cloughy and Mouth are right - football is such a simple game, especially when played by men like Southall and Robertson.

greengrass said...

And I'm even later!
We're into personalities - great entertainers like Frank Worthington.
Regarding Southall: I always had the impression that he was originally a rugby player. It was something about the way he moved.
Can you confirm/deny, Mouth?

P.S. I suspect the same of Cantona.

MotM said...

GG - I've never heard that re Soputhall, but it wouldn't surprise me. He was no boy wonder and always had a manufactured feel to his game - no bad thing in a keeper, the one role in which instinct must be at the service of concentration at all times.

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