Saturday, August 2, 2008

Best of British: Ryan Giggs - Margin

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

Articles on the best footballers through history are usually an excuse to do two things. One is to court controversy to push up the readership of a blog site with little else to report at that moment. The other is to give the writer and enjoyable trip down memory lane. The first of those is entirely fine by me, but the second leads to a problem.

It is seemingly too easy to fondly recall players who hung up their boots years ago, rather than those still playing today. It seems natural to assume the best player of the last fifty years played fifty years ago, not last year. But surely football like most things improves over time, or at least shows little sign that it is inherently less now than once it was.

And so having recalled Dave Mackay, who joined Spurs fifty years ago this summer, it is now time to champion Ryan Giggs, who has played for Manchester United’s first team for a full third of the fifty years in question, and will play on longer still.

Firstly the medals - Giggs has won ten league titles. TEN. I’ll restate that in case it hasn’t hit home. TEN! Double figures! More titles in fact than any club in England has ever wracked up except three. And one of those is Manchester United who had only had seven before Ryan showed up. Then there are four FA Cups, two League Cups, six Charity Shields, two European Cups, a Uefa Super Cup, and an Intercontinental Cup.

Next up longevity: His first trophy was a League Cup win that came before the Premier League formed. Now read that again and take it in this time so I don’t need to repeat myself. Done that? Good. He lifted his tenth title and second European Cup two months ago.

Finally the stats - Giggs has played in 759 games for by far and away the best team in England of his era. So far he has scored 144 goals and created 371. He was the first player to be awarded the PFA Young Player of the Year award in consecutive seasons. And he is the only player ever to score in twelve consecutive European Cup tournaments.

I hope that has opened a few eyes to Ryan Giggs. This is a man who was lauded as the next George Best when he first emerged. Then the cult of Beckham relegated him to the role of just another player who wasn’t the next George Best after all. And then he carried on being brilliant for over fifteen years until finally people realised he was the next Bobby Charlton, who by coincidence also started on the left wing only to move to the middle later on.

Normally longevity comes at a price. To extend a career a player steps down a level and eventually disappears in a Chris Waddle-like haze of non-league football. Not Giggs. He started at the top and has remained a one club marvel. He hasn’t even taken a dignified step down to a Uefa Cup side. Instead he has risen to every challenge that the best team of the age could throw at him. As Manchester United have tried to outspend Blackburn, Newcastle and Chelsea in turn, and out think Arsenal in between, he has been constant.

Sir Alex Fergusson has won only two trophies with Manchester United that Giggs didn’t win as well, so if you think winning is everything then Giggs is clearly the greatest. But some people need more.

So think of him swerving through the Arsenal defence to win the FA Cup semi-final. Think of him with ‘Sharpe’ written across the chest of his red shirt volleying home a right hand cross from 15 yards. Think of him stepping over, jinking, turning and halting so quickly and cleverly that he left a thousand defenders floored.

There may not be many 50 year olds reminiscing about seeing Giggs when they were little and football was better. But there will be soon. Just give it 15 years.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Best of British: John Charles - Ebren

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

There's a problem when trying to pick the five best British players. Even when limiting it to the last 50 years. Even after taking out the five "best" another list has provided.

It's a simple problem, there are too many "greats" to include.

I famously once tried to list the five greatest players ever. I started with seven players and argued my way down to 11.

There are simply too many that demand inclusion – was George Best better than Jimmy Johnstone? And how would you compare either with later players?

Sometimes you just have to look overseas for inspiration – and if you are doing that then there is only one player that HAS to be included in a list of best Britons.

John Charles - 'Il Buon Gigante'.

Few of us have seen him play in his pomp – he signed for Juventus in 1958 – but those that did are unequivocal.

In the cathedral of cattanacio that was Italian football in the 1950s and early 1960s Charles scored 93 times in 155 games. He led Wales to their only appearance at a World Cup in 1958 and was absent with injury when a young lad named Pele scored the only goal in a 1-0 quarter-final defeat – they beat Hungary to get there.

Charles started life as a central defender – a position he played in for almost his entire international career even after moving to striker as a club player. In his first season as a forward he scored 27 goals in 30 matches. The next season he set the current record for goals in a season by a Leeds United player at 42 from 39 games. Leeds were promoted on the back of this and in his first season in the top flight he scored 38 goals. A move to Turin and 28 goals followed the next year.

But the bare facts do not convey the esteem in which he is held.

In his first season he was voted Serie A player of the year and the most valuable player in Europe – ahead of Puskas and Di Stefano. It wasn't the only time he beat legends to trophies.

In 1997 Juventus fans rated him higher than Michael Laudrup (who was voted Spain's greatest-ever player) Andreas Möller, and Michel Platini as Juventus' greatest-ever foreign player. In 2001 he was inducted to Italian football's hall of fame – the first foreigner to be so honoured, beating Van Basten, Gullit, Maradona, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, and even Ian Rush to the honour. In 2004, Wales nominated him as their finest player in the last 50 years.

Quite simply, Charles was world class and a player for the ages – as one friend said after his death in 2004: "John lacked the one gift needed to get by in a world of wolves - cynicism

Quotes on Charles from people who saw him play:

Bobby Robson:
Jimmy Greaves: "If I were picking my all-time great British team, or even a world eleven, John Charles would be in it."
Danny Blanchflower: "Everything he does is automatic. When he moves into position for a goal chance it is instinctive. My feet do not do my thinking for me as they do for a player like John Charles. That is why I can never be as great a footballer as he."
Jack Charlton: "A team unto himself - quick, he was a very, very strong runner and he was the greatest header of the ball I ever saw. His power in the air was phenomenal."
Dennis Law: "The best centre-half in Europe. Mind you, when he plays up front, he's one of the best three centre-forwards I've ever seen play the game."
Bruno Garzena, Juventus teammate: "He wasn't a normal footballer; he was an extraordinary one. Even now, he's still considered a god in Turin"
Pele: "Unfortunately for Wales, the great John Charles was absent because of injury. He was the one we really feared."
Tom Holley, Leeds teammate: "Nat Lofthouse was asked who was the best centre-half he had played against and without hesitation named John Charles. The same week Billy Wright was asked who was the greatest centre-forward he had faced, and he too answered 'John Charles'."

Best of British: Dave Mackay - Margin

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

It can be hard to explain to a younger generation what Dave Mackay was. He was a hard man in the middle of the park who led his teams with instinct, guile and guts. He was physical, powerful, fast and inventive. And his vision and technical ability has yet to be surpassed.

He won titles in England and Scotland; was the heart beat of Spurs’ double winning side; and he was bought and made captain by both Sir* Bill Nicholson’s and Sir* Brian Clough.

But none of that quite gets across what Dave Mackay was.

So imagine for a moment all that is best about English football. No not the modern cosmopolitan game where tree trunks of men like Drogba flail around in pain when people sneeze. Not the inspirational game where visionaries like Gerrard athletically leap to their backs with their arms in the air as they enter the box at pace. And no, not the passionate game where superstars join ten team mates in berating the ref at close range for not giving Rooney a free-kick.

Instead think of the mythical English game or yore that we know in our less innocent moments never really existed. Revel in the gritty, bloody, sweaty, muddy, hard fought honourable never-say-die game of yesteryear. Feel that determination to overcome each set back and claim glorious victory against the odds. Worship those heroes of the pitch who were so much more than men and carried themselves with a justified aura of grandeur.

Have you done that? Good. That’s Dave Mackay.

The player of the last fifty years who most established in English minds the worship of a battling hard nosed but honourable midfield general who’d fight against the odds to save his side was the very Scottish Dave Mackay. He won the Scottish League and Cup with Hearts. Then like so many Scots of his age, he left home for the bigger stage in England.

Everyone knows the picture of him terrifying Leeds United’s Billy Bremner with a fearsome hold of his shirt. But another picture deserves to be remembered just as well. That picture shows Dave Mackay playing for Derby County in an unspecified game not long after signing for Clough. His shirt and face are caked in mud and his chin is locked square with defiance as he looks forward and marches onwards.

Of course Dave Mackay was not the game’s only determined midfield general. But he was also one of the most gifted footballers ever to play the game. Terry Venables recalled a training session decades later in which ‘Mr Nicholson’ had told his players to each take a ball, flick it up onto the yellow line on the wall, volley it onto the red line above, then the blue one below, and then repeat the order backwards before trapping it. Everyone looked blankly at the boss except Mackay who looked at the wall, flicked the ball up onto the yellow line, volleyed against each next line in order, trapped the ball dead, and asked “Like that boss?”

He was the heartbeat of Spurs’ double winning side but it was his fight back from two broken legs that cemented the legend. In 1963 he broke his left leg in a Cup Winners Cup game against Manchester United, or as he maintains to this day, Noel Cantwell broke it.

Some months later he started his gradual comeback and broke it again in a reserve match. This time the same left leg broke in two places instead of one and his career was over. In those days Players struggled back after one such injury, and to come back after a simultaneous second and third break was almost unthinkable. But this was Dave Mackay, and after a year out he stepped out to face Leeds United at White Hart Lane to rapturous applause.

Hence the photo with Bremner. That game the pair tussled for a ball that Mackay won, and so Bermner took a petulant swing at Mackay’s left leg. Mackay had never yet resorted to such petty outbursts, but his opponent had ignored the nearer and more convenient right leg to attack the one he knew was broken. Because of that Mackay put the vicious little bully in his place.

Bremner never kicked Mackay again, or so the story goes. But more important than that was that Mackay played on for years afterwards. He became synonymous with honour and strength and the determined fight back along with everything else people admired in the man’s game of English football.

Not bad going for a Scot!

* Neither Sir Bill nor Sir Brian were ever summoned to the palace for Knighting despite their remarkable achievements and characters. However, since Spurs and Forest fans are a higher authority than the monarchy, their long declared fan knighthoods are respected by this writer.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Australia 1: GB 4 A Review of Le Tour – by Mimitig

In the week that Brett Lancaster talks to the press about how the Aussies are going to whop us on the track in the Olympics, it’s quite comforting to gloat – just a little – on how we whopped them on the road.

Now I am well aware that the world no longer holds its breath for Le Tour de France and many are still convinced that every cyclist involved is a hideous drug cheat and it is quite possible that what happens for three weeks in July in France is less than a minor backdrop to transfer rumours in the Premiership.

However I consider the (al)most famous sporting event of all time still to be fairly important and given the efforts that most teams, organisers and participants are now prepared to go to in order to be proven clean, I think the achievements of this year’s Tour riders to be worth applauding.

Before I review the whole three weeks, I shall offer an explanation of my headline. Simon Gerrans (born Melbourne, raised in Mansfield, Victoria, riding for Credit Agricole) won Stage 15 of this year’s Tour. The Manx Express, Team GB’s very own Mark Cavendish won Stages 5, 8, 12 and 13. And to rub salt into the Aussie wound (I did rather enjoy this bit) was acclaimed by the kings of cycling commentary Phil Liggett (34 Tours, commentating) and Paul Sherwen (raced seven Tours, finished five) as The New Robbie McEwen.

Must hurt a bit, if you’re an Aussie, for the new wonder not to be another Aussie but a Manxman. I did like that.

Anyway after that little bit of running around happily with hands in the air etc, let’s get calm and have a look at the race overall.

Well first, several drug cheats got found out, bigtime, and got chucked off the Tour. Starting with some fairly insignificant Spaniards, the fight contre le Dopage got very serious with Ricco, Piepoli and in fact the whole of the Saunier Duval team. Who exited stage left swiftly – a faster depart could only have been induced by a bear entering stage right with teeth and claws very much on show.

Next – how did it go overall? I was proved ridiculously naïve and hopeful before the start stating it would be clean. I guess Christian Prudhomme would be in my club there. But he did put together a fabulous route – starting with a proper road stage rather than the traditional Prologue meant Stage One was truly exciting. Three days in troublesome Breton weather added to the tension and we felt their pain. There were crashes galore in the first few days – some resulting in abandonnments – and it all added to the slightly gruesome fun of watching Le Tour.

As always, the organisers, The ASO, had produced a superb guide, and so Paul and Phil were able to give us details of every chateau and ville and village through which the Tour passed. It really is the most massive advert for France. Not a lot was made of the Tour being “Rogue” ie not run within the auspices of the UCI. Which was a shame. Quite frankly a gloves off full on contest between Christian and Pat McQuaid is something I’d have paid good money to see.

Still, never mind the bollocks (as someone once said), what happened? Truth is, it all really happened in the mountains. We had the Pyrenees before the Alps and in all honesty, we learned little. Cadel was confirmed, yet again, as a wheel-sucker. He did have a crash which may have hurt him more than we currently know, but he just didn’t attack. We thought he’d have gained time on the others then, but not really. He did enough to wear the Maillot Jaune for a while but was never convincing.

The Schlecks, on the other hand, were impressive. Andy took White and Frank had a moment when he lost the chance of yellow by a mere second. All the more impressive as Team CSC were putting all their strength behind Madrileno Carlos Sastre. With hindsight it is easy to see how they gave up their individual hopes in this year’s Tour to support Carlos.

Apres les Pyrenees, Cav was strong enough to get his fourth sprint win, and, to be honest, in the huge excitement of that, I lost touch with the GC – also because I went on holiday.

With my eye off the wheel, as it were, they trolled on for many more of Phil’s “killermetres” and then suddenly it was the final Time Trial. This was when Evans was supposed to knock the opposition into a cocked hat and win the Tour. I missed this crucial day – too busy willing Middlesex on to a win at The Rosebowl – but I caught highlights, and to my surprise, no yellow for the Aussie.

Carlos Sastre had spent much of the off-season working on his time-trialling – including hours and hours in a wind-tunnel – and it paid off. Evans didn’t excel and Carlos did brilliantly. He set off on the final day in yellow and only a hideous crash could have changed the outcome. Another win for Spain in a year when they seem bullet-proof in sport.

The rolling first ks on Sunday were typical. Champagne and a great team lead-out for CSC Saxo Bank. One of the few teams that had all starters heading to the Champs Elysees. Sastre didn’t have to win – just finish with the bunch.

Job done and the man known as Don Limpio (Mr Clean) took the honours on the podium and the Tour is over for another year.

As a writer far cleverer than I has said, this will be known as the Interim Tour. The one which was won by a clean rider at the end of his career, and one in which, hopefully, the last of the drug cheats were caught, thrown off and sacked.

Next year will be a new chapter in cycling history. Many names will not be at Le Depart in 2009, some teams probably won’t be, but we are edging ever closer to a completely clean sport and Tour.

Keep the faith and join me next July for my reports – sometimes interesting, always interested and always hopeful. I can’t help myself – I love the boys in lycra and year on year I keep hoping and believing that this time it’s a good thing.

I was devastated by Ricco and in fact Saunier Duval, but I was inspired by Cav and by Team Columbia. There is enough to make next year a thrill.

And bring on the Olympics and let’s see whether the Aussies can deliver what Lancaster promises or whether Cav and Brad, Chris Hoy and Vicky leading the women’s attack can whop those sodding loud-mouthed colonials in the Velodrome. Done ‘em on the road so COME ON BOYS AND GALS. Go for Gold and whop’em!

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