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?

72 Classic: Clough, Allison, Keegan and co. – why it was special

MALCOLM Allison, one of the pivotal figures of the 1970s, once said that the period between 1967 and 1972 was one of British football’s golden ages. Anyone who lived through that half decade of action will doubtless recall some outstanding players and personalities, memorable teams and the outlandish fashion and hairstyles of the age.

This was, after all, a period that desperately clung to the “swinging Sixties” and introduced the excesses and decadence of the early 1970s. It was played out against an economic background that was deteriorating weekly, culminating in the candle-lit days of power cuts in 1973-74 and the three-day week. From a footballing perspective, England still had enough self-confidence to believe that Sir Alf Ramsey’s squad was still capable of competing at the highest level. 1971 was just five years after the 1966 triumph and some of its key figures were still stubbornly hanging onto their place in the national team.

But if the end of the Sixties, from a cultural point of view, was signalled by the break-up of the Beatles, 1971-72 really killed-off the period with the decline of England, the ageing of some of its icons and the conclusion of the post-66 attendance boom. 1971-72 was two years on from the last football season of the 60s, but football’s two standard bearing groups of the decade – Best, Law, Charlton and Moore, Hurst, Peters, were coming to the end of their time of influence. By the end of 1972-73, the Manchester United trio were no longer at Old Trafford, for various reasons, and only Moore was still at West Ham.

The 1971-72 season looked like the final flourish of the man that epitomised the 1960s, George Best. He scored 26 goals in domestic football and provided some brilliant football, but it was the last we saw of the genius that was the Irishman. As Manchester United declined in the second half of the season, Best lost heart and by the middle of 1972-73, he had retired.

United’s fall from the pinnacle of the game really started in 1970 and their impressive first half of 1971-72 merely papered over the cracks. Within two seasons, they were relegated, although in hindsight, it was the short, sharp shock the club needed to acknowledge that things had changed since the days of Sir Matt Busby.

Even without United, though, English football served up an exciting championship race, possibly the most tense and open for years. Arsenal went into the campaign as double winners in 1970-71, but they were never really involved in a bid to retaining their title, although they returned to Wembley for the FA Cup final. However, Arsenal’s pursuit of European success suggested that there was a degree of stagnation settling in across English football. In 1970, when the Gunners won the Fairs’ Cup, they beat Ajax over two legs with some ease. Two seasons on, Arsenal were beaten twice by the Dutch team, who were holders of the European Cup. Something had changed and the spirit of progressive football wasn’t to be found in England, it was across the Channel.

The Dutch, with Johan Cruyff in his pomp, may have been leading the way in club football, but the West Germans had emerged as the team to beat on the international stage. There were signs that an irresistible force was in the ascendancy in Mexico in 1970, but in 1972, the Germans were European champions and they had signalled the end of Ramsey’s England in the quarter-finals, winning 3-1 at Wembley. West Germany had their own dynamic playmaker to rival Cruyff in the form of Günter Theodor Netzer, and he made England’s own midfielders look very pedestrian. That tie was, effectively, the end of Geoff Hurst – he left West Ham in the summer of 1972 – but also struck at the heart of English confidence.

Derby County players show off their League Championship medals aas they pose with the trophies won by the club during the 1971-72 season: (back row, l-r) ?, John McGovern, physio Gordon Guthrie, trainer Jimmy Gordon, Ron Webster, John Robson, Terry Hennessey, Alan Hinton, John O’Hare, Colin Boulton, Alan Durban; (front row, l-r) Peter Daniel, Archie Gemmill, Kevin Hector, ?; (trophies, l-r) Central League, Football League Championship, Texaco Cup Photo: PA

In terms of self-confidence, Derby County’s outspoken manager, Brian Clough, had few equals, although his style wasn’t to everyone’s taste. Nobody predicted that Derby would become genuine title challengers, although Clough had assembled an exciting team at the Baseball Ground. Leeds United, who had become serial bridesmaids in 1970 and 1971, were most people’s idea of champions, although they remained unpopular. Don Revie had instilled in his squad something of a siege mentality, largely built on the “us and them” philosophy and the desire to create intense loyalty and togetherness. It worked, but Leeds never had the strength in depth required for a campaign fought on multiple fronts and accompanying their intensity was high drama – a Leeds defeat was invariably greeted with schadenfreude by the rest of English football, which only served to bond Revie’s troops even closer. This often clouded the fact that Leeds were a extraordinary footballing team and in 1971-72 they produced some of their best performances. They won the FA Cup and were beaten at the death by Wolves in their final league game when the double was at stake. Once more, they had fallen short at the final hurdle.

Returning to Malcolm Allison, his Manchester City team had the title within their grasp, but to some extent the signing of Rodney Marsh, the coveted Queens Park Rangers forward, cost City the title. Signed in March 1972, for a record £ 200,000 fee, March joined a team that was four points clear at the top of the table. Marsh himself admitted that the transfer was a mistake and that it had been detrimental to City’s championship credentials.

While Marsh, despite his skill and charisma, upset the shape of Allison’s team, a new and relatively unknown forward had injected fresh impetus into Bill Shankly’s Liverpool. His name was Kevin Keegan and he would become British football’s hottest talent and the successor to George Best as the face of the game. Keegan was a different proposition to Best, though. He didn’t have Best’s natural virtuosity, or his maverick tendencies, but he made the most of his attributes and he knew his worth. Keegan was wholesome, reliable and energetic and Liverpool’s Kop loved him.

Liverpool were one year away from beginning their ruthless pursuit of silverware, but in 1971-72, they had enough to finish painfully close to the top spot. That belonged to Derby County, but not before no less than four teams stake a claim to the title, right up until the final week. Derby were, perhaps, the least likely to finish in first place, but there could be no denying the quality of their football. Players like Roy McFarland, Colin Todd, Archie Gemmill, Kevin Hector and John O’Hare would become household names, while Clough, with his emphasis on skill and hard work, would go on to prove that his success was no fluke.

The party was not quite over, but the guests were gradually leaving. Within a decade, attendances in division one had fallen by 10,000 per game. Clough left Derby in 1973-74, Allison resigned from City, Revie took on England in 1974 (after a second title with Leeds), Shankly retired in 1974. United were relegated, Chelsea followed them in 1975 and Tottenham lost that doyen of managers, Bill Nicholson. And to cap it all, England failed to qualify for World Cup 1974 and Ramsey was sacked. In 1971-72, who would have predicted such a chain of events, even in the unpredictable world of football.

Coming soon: Chapter 2 – Lifting Leeds

Messigate: Even heroes move on – and it’s often with a bad taste

LIONEL Messi’s press conference portrayed a man struggling to keep his emotions in check, an inevitable consequence of the debacle around his contract and eventual departure from Barcelona. It looked very staged, almost false, and in truth, the Barca faithful deserved a better way to say farewell to their talismanic hero. Overall, it was a shabby end to a glorious saga.

But how often does this happen? In Messi’s case, it is an almost unprecedented situation, but over the years, the unsatisfactory end to a career is something we’ve seen on many occasions.

In the days before players announced the end of their international careers and sent love letters to fans via social media as they galloped off for a better deal, players would disappear from their clubs, noted by a small article announcing they had signed for a lesser club. Today, the departure of a player is an event, just as transfer deadline days are now a week-long tale of reporters standing outside training grounds for the slightest glimpse of action.

The idea that Messi is bigger than his employer is not an outrageous suggestion, but in the past, the club was certainly bigger than the player and if it ever got tested, the club would win. Players that felt they were so much part of the furniture they deserved certain privileges, invariably left with no small degree of bitterness. The word “servant” has been an inappropriate description of a long-serving player, but using that term today is frankly quite obscene, just as the concept of a testimonial for a multi-millionaire player is somewhat insulting, even if they signal all the virtues by using their benefit game as a way to attach themselves to a charity through ticket sales to fans. 

Great players eventually pass into history as nobody can cheat Father Time for ever, not even Messi. Nobody wants to see a good clubman outstay his welcome and start to chip away at their well-earned reputation. Every club has such a player, even your local non-league outfit. The fact is, once the player has become less effective, the club will soon find a way to remove them from the front line, perhaps giving them a coaching role until the contract runs off.

There are some players that are so indelibly linked to a club that nobody can imagine that club without them. Messi is certainly one of those players, but it is surprising how quickly you become history. 

When Bobby Moore left West Ham in 1974, it felt like the club had lost its right arm. Moore was in decline, but he was, after all, the captain of England’s World Cup team. He had been an international right up until 1973 but he wanted to leave West Ham. At 32, he was still highly-rated, but the Hammers would not let him leave on a free transfer and asked for a fee. Moore was unhappy about the club trying to make a bit of cash out of a player who was an icon and a man of his time. 

Around the same time, Chelsea’s hero, Peter Osgood, was sold to Southampton. Osgood was – and remains to this day  – a Chelsea hero and his departure was catastrophic for the club. Osgood and Alan Hudson effectively fell-out with manager Dave Sexton, and the club backed their coach rather than the players. There is a school of thought that Chelsea were willing to sell them because of the growing financial crisis at the club. How different from today – in such a situation, the manager would almost certainly be sacrificed. Both players did return in some shape or form, but the magic was gone and it is fair to say it took a decade for Chelsea to recover from that disastrous period.

George Best and Manchester United was another story that ended badly. Best, whose lifestyle was sub-optimal for a professional sportsman, walked out on the club in the 1972-73 season after two years of wayward behaviour. He quit the game, explaining to a group of journalists on a Spanish terrace that he had fallen out of love with football and later revealed he was drinking too much. Tommy Docherty persuaded him to come back, and depending whose story you believe, the reunion was doomed. Despite the way Best conducted himself between 1970 and 1972, he still felt as though he was badly treated at the end of his career. 

As Messi joins Paris Saint-Germain, for arguably the most lucrative swansong in football history, it is clear the diminutive Argentinian is not bigger than Barcelona. Both parties wanted to continue their relationship, but Barca, in the end, had to show him the door, however much they might love Rosario’s favourite son.

And that’s how it should be, clubs are the employers, players the employees. Over the past couple of decades, player power and demands have really run football, with intermediaries adding to the cost. The more advisors, agents, fixers and hangers-on there are, the more cost ineffective it all becomes – everyone takes their cut. Barca’s financial mess will take time to solve, but they could no longer move heaven and earth to accommodate their prized asset. It must have been a hard decision to make, but they did the right thing.