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.

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?