Grey Neutral Weekly: Arsenal’s fall, dementia’s rise and problems with mavericks

CHELSEA’s victory against a tepid Arsenal was relatively easy, but given the Blues have spent well over the past two seasons, and the Gunners clearly haven’t, the home side can be forgiven for looking lightweight. In the cold light of day, Arsenal’s board may have to admit to themselves they simply do not have the right manager or approach to player acquisition. By the time Arséne Wenger left the club, they were already drifting away from Champions League contention, but since then, they have fallen two notches in the hierarchy, from Europa League to nowhere – not even the Conference League. And they cannot blame a lack of spending – in the past four seasons, Arsenal have the second highest net spend at £ 326 million, a figure beaten only by Manchester United (£ 356 million). 

Their gross spend for that period totals £ 425 million, somewhat higher than Liverpool and Tottenham and around £ 50 million less than the Manchester clubs. This summer, they have been Europe’s biggest spenders, but how long will they have to wait to reap the benefits? Getting it right in the market is not easy – Chelsea, for all their wallet power, have had a number of ill-judged signings in the Abramovich.

Arsenal currently look directionless, from the disconnect between fans and owner through to the team management. Against this backdrop, it is hard to see Mikel Arteta lasting too long at the Emirates. Once more the problem of ill-thought succession planning has reared its head, Manchester United have laboured through the post-Ferguson era, Arsenal have paid the price of hanging on to a coach who had been overtaken for too long.

Surely, it’s time to be more proactive about football and dementia?

Another week, another victim. This time, it is former Liverpool midfielder Terry McDermott who has been diagnosed with dementia. Last week it was Denis Law. It is becoming all too common. The list goes on: Bobby Charlton, Jackie Charlton, Peter Bonetti, Nobby Stiles, Martin Peters, Billy McNeill and of course, Jeff Astle and many others. Surely, it is time to screen footballers well before they hang their boots up to monitor their neurological state? 

Dr. Michael Grey from University of East Anglia, responding to the guidelines on heading the ball that limit players to 10 “higher force” headers a week, asked how this would be enforced: “The recommendations make no distinction based on gender despite growing evidence that women are more susceptible to head injury than men. There are biological differences between male and female in both structure and physiology that warrant a more considered approach.” Dr. Grey pointed out that the new guidance appears to be restricted to adults and lacks any provision for children where heading the ball in training has been discouraged by the FA, albeit not enforced, and heading the ball in match play is still permitted.  “This is problematic due to the fact that the brain of a child is at significantly greater risk to brain injury than that of an adult. It is time to consider an outright ban on heading the ball for younger children – both in practise and match play, complete with an enforcement strategy.”

Admittedly, dementia used to be something was dismissed as part of old age, but we live longer than ever before and industrial disease has been identified across many types of work for years. Thumping your head has never done anyone any good, so it is time that safety measures should be implemented. Consider that companies spend lots of money or ergonomic furniture and training to ensure their staff are comfortable and safe. Football has to do likewise and closely observe their players in each and every game. It’s not rocket science, but it is surely sports science.

Why mavericks don’t get picked

Rod Liddle, writing in the Times at the weekend, recalled a time when some leading “flair” players just didn’t get picked by England. Jack Grealish, considered to be the latest in a long line of flamboyant individuals, was under-used in Euro 2020 and some considered it a slur on the £ 100 million player. Alan Hudson, one of the so-called “mavericks”, was capped twice, and others of his kind were also left counting their international appearances on one or maybe two hands: Peter Osgood (4), Stan Bowles (5), Rodney Marsh (9), Frank Worthington (8), Charlie George (1) and Tony Currie (17). Going back further, there was Len Shackleton, the “clown prince of soccer” who won five caps but no domestic honours. Fine players all of these chaps, but it is no surprise that an England manager in the 1970s would not call upon them in the trenches. Firstly, these players were unreliable and some had poor discipline records, secondly, England managers did not have the luxury of day-to-day contact with them, hence their window of influence was limited. Back in the days of Osgood, Hudson et al, Sir Alf Ramsey, for example, would not see his squad too often. He had to pick the men he knew would do their best for him. The most successful teams are not always the most exciting, hence only one of the aforementioned players won a league title (George, 1971) and between them, they won six trophies. Mavericks may have lifted us off our seats – and still do – but not every manager wants one in his team. Sir Alf and the Don certainly tried to steer clear.


Photo: Alamy

The Grey Neutral: Lille in the pink

ONLY one of the top five European leagues saw its title regained by 2019-20 champions Germany and Bayern Munich. In England, France, Italy and Spain, it’s a year of change. In both France and Italy, it feels more seismic, although Atlético’s success in Spain ends a six-year run of Barca and Real passing the baton to each other. Lille’s playing budget for 2020-21 was € 147 million, versus Paris Saint-Germain’s € 600 million. Hence, the success of Lille is really quite remarkable. PSG will end the season with just the Coupe de France, so Mauricio Pochettino might be a little nervous – Tuchel left PSG with four major trophies in two seasons, including two league titles. Lille’s team may struggle to stay together, notably younger talents like Jonathan David, the 21 year-old Canadian striker, goalkeeper Mike Maignan and Turkish defender Zeki Celik. The team also has some experience in José Fonte (37), Burak Yilmaz (35) and the impressive former Rennes midfielder Benjamin André (30). It’s good to see someone challenge Paris Saint-Germain, who have just given Neymar a new contract. Will they regret that?

Sutton United – an unlikely bunch of heroes

ANYONE who used to visit Sutton United during the club’s long non-league career is probably scratching their head right now. Sutton have never been one of the big clubs in terms of attendances, although they have always had a loyal audience. In step three circles, Sutton were always considered to be non-league royalty and any victory at Gander Green Lane was savoured. They always had good backroom people, from their directors to press officers like Tony Dolbear. They were always very professional. And they have stubbornly hung on their amber and chocolate kit. Sutton deserve credit for their “rebirth” in recent years, installing an artificial pitch and boldly making ticket prices realistic. They deserved success and good luck to them in 2021-22. The Football League is a big step for a London area club and ripping-up that 4G (if it is 4G) will be a painful process, but the good folk of Sutton have never had it so good. Enjoy!

Mavericks also don’t win medals

LISTENING to a podcast involving some players from the early 1970s was an interesting experience. Firstly, it was obvious they loved the game, but secondly, they lived the life and really didn’t expect it to impact their careers. We eulogise about the so-called “maverick” players who had plenty of skill but didn’t win many caps for England. There’s a reason for that – they were unreliable and an international manager doesn’t have the scope to gamble on players or wonder if they will turn up for the game. These players were all fond of the good life and most played in teams that were inconsistent. I wonder why?  Trawl through the careers of six so-called “mavericks” – Alan Hudson, Tony Currie, Rodney Marsh, Frank Worthington, Peter Osgood and Stan Bowles. All brilliant players in their prime. Between this lot, only 45 England caps were picked up, but equally, their medal haul was meagre. Two FA Cups (both Osgood), two Football League Cups (both Marsh), two European Cup-Winners’ Cups (Hudson and Osgood). Currie, Bowles and Worthington didn’t win a single medal. As for George Best, arguably the greatest maverick of all time, he won three medals, two league titles and the 1968 European Cup. As idolised as these players were, their ability didn’t translate into material success with their clubs, unlike Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who have won 40 major medals between them!


Photo: Flickr – Maxime Delrue CC BY-NC 2.0