Football mavericks and why they’re often overlooked

FOOTBALL fans tend to love the maverick player, but that’s largely because they entertain and often, they will cock a snook at the authorities. The game’s heroes are invariably not the most skilful of players – hence, cult figures like John Terry, Julian Dicks and Vinnie Jones have elevated positions in the game’s culture. The artful dodger will always command attention rather than quiet and mouse-like Oliver Twist. The mavericks are adored not just because of their talent, they are also figures of anti-establishment and the masses like to identify with them.

That doesn’t always make mavericks popular with managers and club officials. In fact, the wayward, “rock and roll footballer” is seen as a pain in the arse by those that employ him. That doesn’t stop supporters bemoaning the fact their favourite ball-juggling, womanising and gambling bon viveur does not get selected for internationals. The latest “maverick” is supposedly Jack Grealish of Manchester City, but although he’s arguably the nearest thing we have to the good-time player, the modern game just doesn’t allow for characters who just will not comply. While this means clubs don’t have the sort of problem team managers had in the past, it also makes players somewhat less interesting.

That’s why the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic remained such a compelling figure in the game. He might not have lived the life of Best, Marsh and Hudson, but he’s an amusing, controversial figure who never fails to entertain. It is probable no modern player could live like George Best and have a long, rewarding career. Those that try would probably find their playing days curtailed by ill-health, niggling injuries and plenty of time warming benches. Given the sums of money involved, why would any club take on an expensive shipwreck in this age of system-orientated football?

As much as we look back with affection on those skilful players of the past that produced brilliance on an occasional basis, it is now very clear why some of them failed to impress national team managers and selectors. What made these players so appealing was the element of surprise. They could, out of nowhere, produce something exceptional. The unexpected was what made them so wonderfully gifted, but it didn’t happen all the time, because if it did, it would not be a surprise. And if they were prevented from shining – “stop Stanley Bowles and you stop QPR” – they could be largely anonymous. They were never consistent enough to be successful all of the time.

Football had to be muscular, essentially masculine and all about 100% commitment. Hence, the ball-playing artist has always been mistrusted.

Consider the annual awards from the Football Writers’ Association and Professional Footballers Association. How often did a maverick player win one of these accolades? The FWA named George Best player of the year in 1968, but mostly, the prizes went to good professionals who inspired their team-mates: Joe Mercer, Billy Wright, Danny Blanchflower, Dave Mackay, Tony Book, Frank McClintock and so on and so forth. It changed a little with awards for Kenny Dalglish, John Barnes and one of the great mavericks of all time, Eric Cantona. He won 45 caps for France but his talent deserved many more. But he was difficult and managers would prefer to avoid the aggravation.

This international exclusion characterises the relationship between the entertainer and the England team. Managers have always liked systems and the concept of the team unit. If you had skilled players within that unit, then it was a bonus, but it had to work. The most successful teams of all time are those that have been settled, maintain a consistent style with every player knowing their role. If there was an exceptional talent, he could add an element of virtuosity and fantasy to that team, but he may do it once every four appearances. The flow of the game might not always allow it, or a burly defender might stymie his guile, underlining that the inability to be brilliant is not just down to the mood of the individual concerned, there are also uncontrollable factors involved.

There’s also the misguided perception that mavericks are arrogant, but really they are still the little kid kicking the ball up against a garden wall and doing keepy-up in the yard. An English player attempts a bit of artistry and maybe tricks the opposition and he’s called arrogant, while a South American does the same and is labelled a genius. English football’s mistrust of the ball-player is founded on the belief sport should be muscular, essentially masculine and all about 100% commitment. It was a philosophy that cost the nation its place at the forefront of football for many years, starting in the 1950s with those humbling defeats at the hands of the USA and Hungary.

England managers never used to trust the flavour of the month player who the press started to champion. Sir Alf Ramsey, for example, never truly warmed to Jimmy Greaves. As brilliant as he was at putting the ball in the back of the net, Greaves was also a little non-conformist, as they found out in Italy when he moved to AC Milan. Despite the many “Greaves for England” banners and chants, Ramsey knew what he was looking for and his system was better suited to players like Geoff Hurst and Roger Hunt.

Ramsey also reluctantly included players like Peter Osgood and Rodney Marsh in his squads, but rarely played them. Osgood, for instance, was never a Ramsey man and although he took him to Mexico in the 1970 World Cup, failed to use him. Osgood was crestfallen after being ignored and this possibly affected his club form in 1970-71. Despite his club form, Ramsey did not relent until almost at the end of his reign as manager when he named Osgood in a game against Italy, just a few weeks after England had been knocked out of the 1974 World Cup.

Osgood’s case is typical of the era in which he played, a time that denied some supremely talented players their chance. However, it is not difficult to have some sympathy with people like Ramsey and his successor Don Revie. In those days, international managers only had limited time with their players and games did not come regularly. For example, in 2021-22, England have played 13 games and over the past five years, there have been 66 internationals. In a similar five-year period from 1967 to 1972, England played 48 games. Furthermore, there were no international breaks and Ramsey might go months without seeing his squad. So, he needed men he could rely on, because there was no intense international programme, a defeat would play on his mind for weeks and weeks. He could not afford to gamble on team selection. It was a simple question – who can I really rely on?

There is a long list of players who might have felt aggrieved at their lack of exposure at international level: Rodney Marsh, Stan Bowles, Frank Worthington, Charlie George and Tony Currie are just four. Marsh didn’t get a look-in until he was 26 but that could be because of his prolonged career at a lower level with Queens Park Rangers, but mostly, they all had reputations that deterred Ramsey and Revie.

It’s also worth looking at the club careers of these players. How many played for title-chasing clubs and how many actually won medals? Only one of the gang won a league championship, a young Charlie George in 1971 with Arsenal. George also won the FA Cup that year and the only other member of that group to win the FA Cup was Peter Osgood in 1970 and 1976. Marsh won the Football League Cup with QPR in 1967. Currie, Worthington and Bowles never won a major honour in the game. Between seven players, less than 50 England caps were won. Lovers of maverick players won’t like to hear it, but club managers rarely trusted them either. It is hard to imagine hard men like Bill Shankly, Don Revie, Bill Nicholson and Dave Sexton really placing total faith in such players.

Which brings us, finally, onto the story of George Best, the ultimate tale of flawed genius. Best’s career has to be divided into two periods: 1964 to 1969; and 1970 to 1973. Best won two league titles and the European Cup in the first and nothing for the rest of his career. His international career saw him win 37 caps for Northern Ireland over 14 seasons, although after 1971, his appearances were rare. His last medal was won at the age of 22, he never played in a domestic cup final and never qualified for the World Cup. He was a maverick, for sure, hence he was a hired gun for many years, turning out for whoever was prepared to pay him. He almost became a George Best tribute act, a pale imitation of the brilliant youngster who made headlines for the right reasons.

Whether it was Best, Osgood, Marsh, George or Worthington, these players lit up the stage, but it was the rarity value that made their antics so captivating to watch. Perhaps this provides some clarity on why some managers might still shy away from the unpredictable?

Best, Cruyff, Hudson, Keegan: Playboys and smart boys

ANYONE who has attended a “sportsman’s evening” featuring footballers from the 1970s will be familiar with the script: laddish banter, tales of drink, women and gambling, blue jokes and so on and so forth. Sometimes, it’s not worth meeting your heroes, men you might have only seen on Match of the Day or in the tabloid press. After a while, stories of how “I once pissed in the FA Cup”, or “at half-time I had a leggy blond” become tiresome and certainly out of sync with today’s narrative.

I’ve been to a few of these events and nearly always come away feeling “ok, that was fun…but did it really tell me anything about how the game was played in those days?”. Invariably, there’s no valuable insight into football itself, other than the stark realisation that the legendary number nine was, after all, an ordinary mortal who liked a drink, chased skirt and couldn’t resist the 3 o’clock at Kempton Park.  And the fact he’s chasing every penny by speaking in a social club about how, after training, the lads went on the piss and had to be ushered out of the pub by an irate manager, suggests life was lived to the full without a care for the future. It’s funny the first time, but it becomes all too predictable and, one might add, a little sad.

The sorry saga of George Best is well known to any of us who lived through that era or read the countless books and articles about his fall from grace. The film about the former Manchester United star was scarcely any more revealing, but left you feeling angry that he rarely took responsibility for his own problems and seemed content to allow his episodes of falling on and off the wagon to be his source of income.

Best may have been a forerunner, but he also lacked the will-power to manage his life. Brilliant he may have been, but his star had burned out by 1973. If you have an addictive personality, or seek solace through being constantly removed from reality, which alcohol and drugs can help you achieve, you create your own problems. Tragically, Best selected a lifestyle that was self destructive.

It’s debatable if Best and others who allowed themselves to be engulfed by alcohol truly loved playing the game of football as much as they craved its trappings. They certainly loved the adulation they received from the fans, the ego-building nature of the sport and the fame. Many footballers come from deprived backgrounds where money may have been in short supply. They may be ill-educated and playing football might be their only way of building self-esteem. It was like that when I was young and you see it today – working class parents throwing their child into football as their only way to escape the drudgery of everyday life. I once knew someone who was hell-bent on getting his son into professional football, even denying him the chance of reading “books” to concentrate on being a footballer. “I knocked that out of him”. He didn’t succeed and the rest of his education was neglected. You only have to look at the behaviour of some players, right up to the highest level, to know they lack the discipline, restraint and savvy to manage their lives properly, even in this age of multi-million contracts, agents and advisors.

Best had countless people around him and he probably made the mistake of trusting too many of them. But whenever you see footage of him at his peak, he’s surrounded by women, drink and hangers-on. The alpha male in him would have loved it all, but then he realised he was, after all, quite lonely. He was probably badly advised and his entourage inevitably comprised those  in awe of him and those that saw an opportunity to hang onto his expensively trendy shirt-tail.

Best might have been saved if Manchester United had sold him when he was marketable, not only reaping the benefit of a transfer fee, but also removing him from the world he had created. A tough manager in a new environment, either in Britain or abroad, may have turned him around and allowed him to completely fulfil his talent at club level. Best, after all, won very little and nothing after 1968, and he never graced the highest stage because he was Northern Irish. Just imagine if he had moved to a club managed by Brian Clough or Don Revie, or even ventured abroad.

Best’s glitzy lifestyle, which really was anything but when you look at the consequences, was also a template for some to follow. At Chelsea, players like Peter Osgood and Alan Hudson became known for their forays into nearby Kings Road and to some extent, it destroyed the career of Hudson, a local lad born just five years after Best. In human terms, that’s not a big age gap, but in football terms, it is almost half a career.

Hudson was 18 when he burst onto the scene at Chelsea and in 1969-70, was simply outstanding, so much so that the cold-fish that was Sir Alf Ramsey heaped praise upon him and named him in his 40-man preliminary squad for the Mexico World Cup. He missed both the World Cup and Chelsea’s 1970 FA Cup triumph through injury and the following season, he seemed to be out-of-sorts. His form was much better in 1971-72, bringing him back into view of Ramsey, but at the end of that campaign, he turned down the chance to go on tour with England under-23s. That possibly ended any chance he had of being used by Ramsey.

Hudson became known as a good-time-boy, teaming-up with the likes of Osgood who was a few years older than Chelsea’s starlet. While Osgood had some good seasons already under his belt, not to mention 30-plus goals in 1969-70 and 1971-72 and a few England caps, Hudson was still in the reputation-making period of his career. He was the music artist trying to build on a brilliant first album. Although he flickered with that brilliance, there was often the feeling that he was never as good as that first season in Chelsea’s team, that a little bit of arrogance had crept in. To many, however, Hudson still had to prove himself, and although there was no doubting his talent, he was never as popular or as revered as “Ossie”.

When  Osgood and Hudson fell out with manager Dave Sexton, effectively breaking-up the Chelsea team of the early 1970s, it was Hudson the club was most keen to dispose of – they needed the £240,000 they picked up for the 22 year-old, and it was clear the rift between him and Sexton was not going to be easily repaired. A new club and a different kind of manager, Tony Waddington, provided Hudson with a new stage, and on this one, he was the kingpin.

He finished the 1973-74 season with Stoke, lifting them up the table, but the final game of the campaign saw him return to Chelsea. He was jeered by Chelsea’s fans, something that the club’s followers rarely do to former players, and when he scored the only goal of the game, he provocatively celebrated in front of the old West Stand at Stamford Bridge. “That goal was worth the £11,000 transfer cut I never received,” he said, suggesting the divorce had been messy.

Hudson at last showed the sort of form he had shown at Chelsea in his debut season and in 1974-75 and 1975-76, he was arguably the best midfielder in the Football League. He won two England caps, his first a stunning debut against world champions West Germany, but he was quickly discarded by manager Don Revie, which seemed unjust and a waste of a fine talent.

Away from the pitch, Hudson opened a night club in Newcastle-under-Lyme and was a renowned drinker. There were remarkable similarities in the lifestyle led by Hudson and the now retired Best, which may have been one of the reasons why international honours didn’t come his way.

By December 1976, he was at Arsenal, but it never seemed more than a temporary interlude for a player who was still only 25 years old. He showed glimpses of his best form and played in the FA Cup final of 1978 against Ipswich, a game Arsenal surprisingly lost. He walked out on the club, openly admitting his dislike for manager Terry Neill.

And that was really it for Hudson as he defected to the United States to play for Seattle Sounders at the age of 28. There was reconciliation with Chelsea in 1983, but he never got to play because of injury and illness and had a second stint at Stoke. His career ended in September 1985 through injury.

Hudson was a contemporary of both Johan Cruyff and Günter Netzer, players we idolised from afar. If only we knew it, we had our own version, a player that could have eased England through its rebuilding programme post-1974. There were so many players who failed to live up to their potential because of mis-management, but it is by no means an English problem and there are notable exceptions, players who achieve because they make the best of their [limited] ability.

Kevin Keegan was one such example, a hard-working individual who gave everything on the pitch and carefully controlled his career, long before David Beckham made it an art form. It took a couple of setbacks – he had to convince people in the England set-up initially, and there was the infamous bust-up at Wembley with Billy Bremner, but mostly, Keegan was a role model.

Keegan, like Hudson, was born in 1951, but unlike the Chelsea man, he had to work his way through Doncaster and Scunthorpe before arriving at Liverpool in 1971. Keegan’s energy and charisma transformed a Liverpool team that had struggled to live up to its mid-1960s success under Bill Shankly and became British football’s face of the mid-1970s, a new icon for the post-1960s era and a more wholesome, blokey and, dare we say, safer successor to George Best. He was not as talented as Best or even Hudson, but he was marketable.

Keegan also knew his worth and had opened his mind to a transactional football career, not unlike Johan Cruyff, who had long identified that being the top man in a team brought with it a certain portability and market value. In 1977, after a year of “this is my last season, because it is time to move on”, Keegan relocated to Hamburg and not only earned multiples of his Liverpool salary, but also became a European name. He was also smart enough to learn German and recognise that Hamburg was not forever. He returned to English football and played for Southampton and Newcastle, both transactions that gave him enormous publicity and value. He always gave 100% and left in a blaze of glory as he helped Newcastle back to the top flight. He may have been an astute businessman, which some football folk might not have appreciated, but Keegan gave value for money as a player.

What Keegan – and Cruyff – achieved was not beyond the reach of George Best and Alan Hudson, who were by-products of the footballer as pop star model. Keegan and Cruyff, were as much children of their time as Best and Hudson, but they shouldered the responsibility differently – it was playboy versus smart boy. It is no coincidence that Keegan and Cruyff were settled family men, married young, and stayed that way.

Too many idols fall from their pedestal, too many self-destruct and way too often, we hear of former players enduring tragic post-career disasters – people like Kenny Sansom, Stan Bowles, Hudson and Best and even further back, legends like Tommy Lawton and Hughie Gallacher. There’s a refusal to acknowledge that nothing lasts forever, that the good times are only there for a short time and that you’re marketable for about 4,000 days if you’re lucky. Today, there’s no excuse for there’s enough people on the periphery, lurking around the dark corners of football clubs to hammer that message home. But for the heroes of yesterday, “what might have been” has become an overused epitaph.


Photos: PA