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?