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

HARRY KANE has broken Tottenham Hotspur’s scoring record, no mean feat when you have Jimmy Greaves and Martin Chivers in the same list. Kane deserves credit for this remarkable achievement, but no sooner had he netted his latest goal, people were talking about his lack of medals. Spurs haven’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 heads towards 30, you can understand any 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. Messi, of course, now has a World Cup momento on display at home.

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 – just ask Phil Neal, Liverpool’s full back, who won seven league titles, four European Cups, four league cups and the UEFA Cup, along with 50 England caps.

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, Ronaldo has never won the World Cup, even though his 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. Harry Kane is certainly a Tottenham legend in his own lifetime.

CR7 is a product of the age of celebrity, but we created him

CRISTIANO RONALDO has been a great footballer, one of the finest ever seen, but he is in danger of ruining his reputation at the wrong time of his career. His behaviour in recent months has resembled a petulant child with an inflated opinion of his – admittedly substantial – worth. Footballers have their time, but they have to know when they should accept a peripheral role when the grey fleks appear.

Portugal could win the World Cup, they are that good. But they are that good without Cristiano Ronaldo. The vibrancy of the Portuguese has arguably been liberated by the absence of their talisman and young players are performing with a joie de vivre that can be restricted when the team is being structured around a veteran maverick.

If CR7 was a golfer, a tennis player, a sprinter or a formula one driver, he could be excused for being so single-minded. Football is a team game, as we all know, so it should never be about one player. Unfortunately, the media have fuelled this unhealthy obsession with the star man, as seen with Neymar and Lionel Messi as much as Cristiano Ronaldo. The overwhelming focus on a single player feeds the ego and bolsters the image. CR7, allegedly, can have a restaurant to himself in Lisbon if he so wishes, the management happy to close the establishment so he can enjoy his meal. We create our own heroes.

Footballers are generally uncomplicated and excessive fawning can actually warp their sense of reality. Cristiano Ronaldo, like so many, is from a humble background and his career is a testament to his determination, sheer talent and his value to his team. It is so easy for anyone who is idolised to lose sight of who they really are. He is adored by so many, seen as an aspirational figure and an example of what can be achieved. He is part of the cult of celebrity that has plagued the 21st century. His admirers go way beyond the club he plays for, there are millions of people who are simply CR7 fans and many refuse to see any shortcomings within their hero.

CR7 is not the first footballer to become a celebrity; David Beckham will probably be remembered more for his brand-building and appetite for attention than his career as a player. CR7 resembles a carefully sculptured mannekin with good skin with an extraordinary ability to score goals. He could almost be computer-generated.

But in all walks of life, the march of time eventually catches up on everyone. In sport, there is always the dilemma facing the iconic footballer when he or she is no longer as effective as they once were. Cristiano Ronaldo may be a fine specimen in terms of his fitness, his vitality, his general appearance and dedication, but in a physical sport like football, a manager cannot tailor his approach to accommodate someone whose physiology might be 15 years older than his team-mates. For the good of the game, this should always be so and there is nothing more undignified than someone refusing to acknowledge the baton has to be handed on.

CR7, ideally, should be acting as a form of elder statesman encouraging his colleagues as they try and bring Portugal their first World Cup. He may have to concede that he may only have a cameo role to play, but such is the air of drama that surrounds him, you wouldn’t bet against him scoring a World Cup-winning goal.

In all probability, there is not a member of the squad that doesn’t worship him or cite him as the biggest influence on their careers. That should be seen as Cristiano Ronaldo’s greatest achievement, leaving an almost unrivalled legacy that will stand for ever – it is doubtful his statistics will ever be surpassed by a Portuguese player. Will that be enough for someone who enjoys the bling of medals, trophies and accolades? He’s got all of those, he’s got more money than any of us could ever hope to earn and he’s got legions of fans. He needs no more, but if he is to be seen as “CR7 great guy” he needs to stop harming his image, especially at this late stage of his glittering career.