Medals not required – why some greats simply don’t need them

WHEN Harry Kane was in dispute with Tottenham Hotspur a year or so ago, people pointed to his lack of medals as a Spurs player. The club hasn’t won anything in Kane’s time, indeed you have to go back to 2008 for their last trophy. Players often claim their desire to leave a club is based on the desire to “win things” and as Kane headed towards 30, you can understand his anxiety about ending his peak years without some sort of bauble to place in his cabinet at Chez Kane.

But not all great players have boxloads of medals when they want to recall their football career. In fact, some of the game’s outstanding names have very little silverware to show for a glittering career. Much depends on who they play for – if you are Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, the statistics of their careers match the plaudits they have received, because they have played for great, successful clubs. Messi has won 11 league titles and Ronaldo seven, but CR7 has won five Champions League medals to Messi’s four.

Zlatan Ibrahomovic has 12 league titles to his name, from the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and France. Bayern’s Thomas Müller has 11 Bundesliga medals, while Paco Gento of Real won 12 La Ligas with Real Madrid. Johan Cruyff won 10 league titles, along with seven domestic cups and three European Cups. He was a league champion with three different clubs: Ajax, Barcelona and Feyenoord. Kenny Dalglish won 23 major medals in his playing career, including 10 league titles with Celtic and Liverpool. Play for the top clubs and you win medals.

Some players, unfortunately, play the role of big fish at a club less equipped to winning major honours on a regular basis. Tom Finney and Stanley Matthews, two of the wizards of the wing, won praise week-by-week and were mainstays of the England team. Finney was a Preston North End player from 1946 to 1960, he won 76 caps for England but never won a major honour. Matthews won 54 caps during a career that saw him play for Stoke City and Blackpool. His only honour was the FA Cup in 1953. Both these players earned their place in football history because they were truly great at what they did.

Similarly, there were members of the England 1966 winning team that didn’t enjoy incredible success as club players. Gordon Banks, for example, had to wait until the back end of his career for his one and only medal with Stoke City, the Football League Cup in 1972. George Cohen, a fine full back with Fulham, never won a major prize with his club. Ray Wilson won the FA Cup in 1966 with Everton, but injuries prevented him winning more. The Charlton brothers were the most successful, but Bobby’s trophy winning days ended two years after 1966 as Manchester United entered a period of decline. Big Jack was part of Don Revie’s ultra-professional unit that went close to winning everything, but invariably failed at so many final hurdles. Jimmy Greaves, who missed the World Cup final and then drifted away from the England scene, actually only won three medals in English football, the last in 1967.

George Best, for all his brilliance and headlines, won his last medal in 1968. His career was strangely anti-climatic – he won three medals and 37 caps for Northern Ireland. The man who became the face of British football when Best’s star waned, Kevin Keegan, fared much better in his tangible assets haul – three league titles with Liverpool, one with Hamburg, one European Cup, two UEFA Cups and 63 caps for England. It is fair to say Keegan made the most of his career.

Not so players like Best and even Diego Maradona, who won six medals at club level, although lifting the World Cup eclipses most other pieces of objet d’art. Pelé, because he was limited to appearing for Santos for most of his career, also had few items to show for his wonderful skills.

But did this really matter in times gone by? Arguably not. Today, the football world expects the top names to continually grace the big occasions, but given we are talking about a team game, an individual can only do so much. Hence, Messi and Ronaldo have never won the World Cup, even though their fans continually will them to be crowned champion. While the likes of Matthews and Finney were clubmen of the highest order, they were never likely to win the League Championship with their long-time employers. Bobby Moore, another legendary figure, stayed with West Ham for most of his career, a club that was respected and won the occasional cup, but were never contenders for the title. In the modern game, great players gravitate towards the clubs with money and trophy-winning potential. They might start with a West Ham or a Fulham, but they will surely end up with a Chelsea, a Manchester City or Liverpool.

A good way to measure this is to consider the England World Cup squads. In 1966, Alf Ramsey’s 22 players came from 14 different clubs of which nine were playing for the top six of 1965-66. Four years on, the needle had shifted and only 10 clubs were called upon and 11 were from the top six. In more recent times, the World Cup squad of 2018 was drawn from 10 clubs, but 18 of the 23 were from the so-called “big six”.

Other nations have different squad compositions. France, the 2018 World champions, had a squad that was drawn from across Europe, 15 clubs from five different countries. Croatia, the runners-up were even more diverse, 23 players from 21 clubs in no less than 10 countries. This shows that while overseas players tend to ply their trade across the European landscape, English players are more likely to stay at home and the most successful ones move in the direction of the richest and most successful. It is likely, then, that the top players can collect far more medals than their predecessors from past decades.

It would be inappropriate to talk of medals and not recognise some of the most celebrated players. Liverpool’s Phil Neal, for example, won eight league titles and four European Cups while Celtic’s Billy McNeill was Scottish champion nine times and won 23 medals. Ryan Giggs, in a career that spanned 24 seasons, won no less than 13 league titles. And yet, Alan Shearer won a solitary league title with Blackburn and Gary Lineker waited until he was 30 for his only prize in English football with Tottenham, although two years earlier, he did win the European Cup-Winners’ Cup with Barcelona.

Although some players may feel that a career without official recognition may leave an empty feeling when they retire, consolation can be found in the way they are remembered by the people paying to watch them. While medals can be sold to boost the pension pot, the memories of the fans will never fade. It is not always necessary to wear garlands to be identified as a football legend.

Helping our football neighbours

THIS SEASON (which apparently is a unique one according to the media), I have decided to lend my support to clubs that need a helping hand. It is very clear that the pandemic, like all crises, has hit the poorest in society and football is no exception. Although all clubs have had to bite the bullet in some way, those at the bottom end of the food chain have been hit the worst. Therefore, they need more support than the elite clubs who will always survive and even prosper.

While some big clubs, like Barcelona, have got themselves into dangerous waters, it is hard to sympathise given the amount of money the big clubs pay to their players. Wage bills have, for some years, spiralled out of control, but the clubs perpetuate the problem. Similarly, transfer fees have become ridiculous, yet very few small clubs seem to get a decent slice of the pie. Many transfers are simply being conducted among the top clubs, making agents every wealthy.

Money should be no problem for the behemoths of the game, yet the selfish pursuit of more cash continues, with grand schemes like the European Super League, the somewhat dubious growth of crypto currency and dangerous link-ups with very questionable owners. Football creates it own controversies and its own drama – just look at the financial chaos that exists in the Championship as an example, with wages rocketing beyond income.

Away from this, there are hundreds, indeed thousands, of clubs around Europe that are a million kilometres away from this self-serving model. As a Chelsea fan for more than 50 years, I have moved beyond the stage in life where their results make or break my day or weekend. Chelsea of today are not the club I adopted at the age of eight years old. I am not prepared to pay exploitive prices for tickets at any ground, although like many, I have been forced out of regular Premier action by lack of availability. I refuse to feed the beast and would encourage fans to show their contempt for pricing in the most effective way – by not buying them. Of course, this won’t happen, because fans are frightened of losing their place in the queue. Clubs with waiting lists have no motivation to lower prices, but the fans line-up to shovel more money into the well.

If we all love football, then we should care passionately for the state of health of the so-called eco-system. By neglecting the system, we actually push the big clubs further towards that super league and also damage the structure of the game. There’s few things in sport that are sadder than a closed or derelict football ground.

Part of football’s charm is its aspirational aspect, the possibility of something unexpected happening, be it promotion, relegation, cup shocks or romantic player development stories. The latter is moving into the hands of major clubs, who sweep-up every available young talent and by doing so, deprive smaller clubs from unearthing their own jewel. And then, the young players are rejected and they end up playing in the Isthmian or Southern leagues.

Given there are more fans of big clubs than available tickets, is it not a good idea for those fans who have little chance of gaining a place among the 40,000 at Stamford Bridge or 60,000 at the Emirates to adopt their local football institution as a second eleven? I’m not talking about special “non-league days” or “pay what you want” occasions, but on a regular basis? This not only allows the “fan” to watch live action instead of being glued to TV or social media, but it also pumps more money into the lower leagues of the EFL or non-league.

This is partly why I have decided that in 2022-23, I will be attending League One and League Two as well as women’s football and my local non-league club. I have been something of a portfolio fan for about 10 years, watching the game abroad on a regular basis and also visiting grounds up and down the country (85 of the 92). I won’t pretend this has its downside as I have certainly lost any remaining element of myopic partisanship, but at 63 years of age, I can live with that. But I do feel that it is very beneficial to connect with the very essence of the historic roots of British football. I would add that my next book will be all about the towns and cities in which the game is played across the United Kingdom!

So 2022-23 is a unique season for me and I am actually looking forward to smaller crowds, less hype and some honest endeavour. I would also like to think that crowd behaviour can take a leaf out of the women’s game. I was at Wembley for the final and I have never witnessed a near-90,000 crowd behave with such dignity or respect. It can be done!

This article first appeared in Football Weekends magazine.