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?

England 1970 – better than ’66?

WINNING TWO consecutive World Cups has only been achieved once, by the brilliant Brazil team that lifted the trophy in 1958 and 1962. But when England travelled to Mexico for the 1970 World Cup, there were genuine hopes that Sir Alf Ramsey’s side could retain the trophy won in 1966. Indeed, the more patriotic contingent in Fleet Street felt the 1970 squad was actually a stronger unit.

The prospect of playing in a Latin American country, with all the challenges that came with it, may have made the task daunting, but there was enough confidence to suggest the holders could be real contenders. Even so, Ramsey admitted it would be tough for England to retain their title, but equally, it would be hard to take it away from them.

Nobody in England really knew how good the current batch of Latin Americans were. There was little, if any, coverage of the international game other than the European Cup final, and people only got to be aware of South American football through rumour and heresay, unless a national team went on a European tour or a club side caused a stir in the World Club Championship.

Mexico had hosted the 1968 Olympic Games and there had been a lot of concerns about the altitude and high temperatures. The European nations would have problems in acclimatising, the scientists and medics said, and the South American teams and the hosts would have a distinct advantage. Brazil, in 1958, were the only country to have won the World Cup on another continent. That said, in the Mexico Olympics, Hungary won gold, Bulgaria silver and Spain and France went as far as the last eight.

England expected their players would lose between eight and 10 pounds in weight during a 90-minute game. In order to combat the draining effect of playing in searing heat,  they experimented with slow sodium capsules, which were supposed to replace the lost salts in their bodies. They also donned new Umbro aertex shirts that would be cooler than traditional football kits.

Staying power

England, since 1966, had largely maintained the core of their World Cup winning line-up. George Cohen and Ray Wilson, the full backs, had succumbed to injury and age, while Nobby Stiles had endured a disappointing post-66 career, partly due to the decline of his club Manchester United. Roger Hunt had retired from international duty in 1969. Jack Charlton, despite retaining his position in the England squad, was now a veteran and no longer first choice at centre half. Jimmy Greaves, the crestfallen striker who lost his place in England’s final XI, was last capped in 1967 at the age of 27.

Ramsey’s ‘66 side had very much been a team to fit a system, but the players that had emerged since were working for strong managerial and coaching figures such as Don Revie, Malcolm Allison and Bill Nicholson. The game had changed since 1966 and the ongoing debate over club versus country meant Ramsey’s men also belonged to employers with firm views on how the game should be played. Some were in very successful club teams that had played 60-odd games in a season.

English clubs became more European-savvy in the years after 1966. Leeds United, for example, had won the Inter-Cities’ Fairs Cup in 1968, just over 12 months after losing in the final of the same competition. This triggered off a three-year stretch of English success that included victories for Newcastle United (1969) and Arsenal (1970). Manchester United had won the European Cup in 1968 and neighbours City had secured the European Cup-Winners’ Cup (1970). The club game was looking very healthy, but people were generally unexcited by the national team, which was seen as efficient and lacking in charisma.

England’s Geoff Hurst in action against USSR in the 1968 Nations Cup play-off.

In fact, Ramsey was often accused of picking steady, solid players instead of character actors like Chelsea’s Peter Osgood and indeed, media favourite Jimmy Greaves. Some felt he was too loyal to the men who had won in 1966. Nevertheless, the players who were coming through, such as Colin Bell, Francis Lee and Terry Cooper, to name but three, were considered to be every bit as good as those that had helped England to glory. Those that remained from 1966 were getting older and 1970 would be their swansong in the World Cup. That group would have included Gordon Banks, Bobby and Jack Charlton, Nobby Stiles, Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst.

England’s performance in the 1968 European Championship (then the Nations Cup) ended disappointingly in Florence with a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Yugoslavia, a team they were expected  to beat comfortably. They finished third in that tournament, beating the USSR 2-0 in the third/fourth play-off. From 1968-69, England were preparing for Mexico with friendly matches and the Home Internationals. They were held to frustrating draws with Romania and Bulgaria and then beat a poor French side 5-1 at Wembley. Some performances fell below expectations and not everyone was behind Ramsey and his mean.

The press never really gave them full credit for their achievements and often Ramsey’s tight-lipped response to questions and motionless poker face, would move reporters to be very critical. Nobody really saw the Ramsey way – “the wingless wonders” – as being attractive or acting as a standard bearer for the future of the game and hence, it took many years for full recognition to come the way of Ramsey and his team.

Coming together

Alan Ball against Scotland.

The Home Internationals saw England field the team that would take shape for Mexico and they won all three games, most impressively with a 4-1 demolition of a decent Scotland side at Wembley, with Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters scoring two apiece. The line-up, Gordon Banks in goal, Keith Newton and Terry Cooper at full back, Brian Labone and Bobby Moore in the centre of defence, a midfield of Alan Mullery, Alan Ball, Bobby Charlton, Martin Peters and Francis Lee and Geoff Hurst up front was soon seen as England’s optimal XI.

It was an ideal send-off for England on their diplomatic and fact-finding mission to Mexico, Uruguay and Brazil in the summer of 1969. England did well, drawing 0-0 in the magnificent Azteca Stadium, beating Uruguay in Montevideo and narrowly losing to a Brazil team that included six of the players who would become world champions in 1970. But England didn’t quite make as many friends and influence as many people as they had hoped and the Mexican public failed to warm to Ramsey and his team.

Little did England know at that point, but they would be drawn in the same group as Brazil as well as two difficult Eastern Europeans in Czechoslavakia and Romania. England came through the 1969-70 season but they had rarely shown their best form and one or two players had been off-song. Peters had moved from West Ham to Tottenham, largely because he was concerned about his own performances, the Leeds contingent (Cooper, Charlton, Norman Hunter and Allan Clarke) had endured a season of heartbreak, losing in the FA Cup final, finishing league runners-up and going all the way to the semi-finals of the European Cup.

On the other hand, there were some players who had enjoyed very successful seasons – Jeff Astle of West Bromwich Albion and Chelsea’s Peter Osgood had scored 48 league goals between them. Brian Labone, Alan Ball, Keith Newton and Tommy Wright had all been part of Everton’s league championship side. Of the 22 players who would form the final squad in Mexico, only Gordon Banks and Emlyn Hughes had not tasted success with their clubs. Compared to 1966, this squad had more experience of what it took to win medals.

Sir Alf Ramsey had been on a number of fact-finding missions ahead of the competition. Bobby Charlton, writing in Goal magazine, commented: “Sir Alf has spent so much time in Mexico these past three years that he knows it almost as well as his own garden in Ipswich.” A light-hearted take from England’s veteran midfielder, but the build-up suggested Ramsey was concerned about taking his champions to what he saw as a hostile environment.

England travelled to South America early and played a series of warm-up games, beating Colombia in Bogota (4-0) and Ecuador in Quito (2-0). The tour was soured by the accusations in Bogota that Bobby Moore had stolen a bracelet when visiting a store. Moore was arrested and eventually released but there was an underlying feeling this had all been designed to disrupt England’s preparations for the World Cup finals.

England remained one of the favourites to win the competition. Helmut Schön, West Germany’s manager, tipped them to retain their crown, while Mario Zagalo of Brazil felt his team, the Germans and England would be the main contenders.

Pele, Banks and Müller

Jairzinho scores the winner against England.

While the group game statistics will show that England won two of their three games, they had to grind-out both victories. Their opener was against a tough and determined Romania side who seemed content to foul the holders at every opportunity. England won 1-0 thanks a Geoff Hurst goal which was good enough to start the campaign, but this was quickly overshadowed by the way Brazil dismantled Czechoslavakia the following day.

On June 7, 1970, England met Brazil in a game that would, in many ways, see the baton passed from the 1966 winners to the 1970 champions. There have been many superlatives used to describe this fine example of modern football and there were some outstanding moments, not least the spectacular, impossible save by Gordon Banks from Pele’s header. England lost by a single goal, scored by Jairzinho, but played their best football of the tournament with Bobby Moore showing that Bogota had not affected his game and Terry Cooper outstanding at left back.

The same could not be said of their third group game against the Czechs. Ramsey made a number of changes, fielding Keith Newton, Jack Charlton, Colin Bell, Allan Clarke and Jeff Astle. In an unfamiliar sky blue kit, England put in their worst display for some time but won with a penalty from Clarke. It was enough to send them through to the quarter-finals, although the woodwork had to come to England’s rescue.

Had England really been convincing in the group matches? They rose to the occasion against Brazil, but one goal scored in open play in three games suggested they lacked the firepower and flair to win the competition. Brazil, of course, had captured the hearts of the football world with their exciting style and West Germany, with Gerd Müller scoring no less than seven goals in three games, had been tipped to go all the way. England had to face the Germans in the last eight and their form made them favourites to win in León.

England thought they would be at full strength, but another twist, one full of conspiracy theories, saw Gordon Banks, arguably the top goalkeeper in the world, confined to bed with food poisoning. Ramsey thought Banks would pull through, but he was weakened by the ailment and Peter Bonetti replaced him. Bonetti had just had an outstanding season for Chelsea and in his previous six games for England had conceded just one goal, but he had played only 90 minutes since the FA Cup final replay.

England were outstanding for an hour and were 2-0 ahead thanks to goals from Alan Mullery (31 mins) and Martin Peters (49 mins). Sadly, Bonetti was considered at fault for England’s capitulation, starting with a 68thminute strike from Franz Beckenbauer. Of the three goals that West Germany scored, the first was, realistically, the one that Bonetti should have stopped. Uwe Seeler’s back header that equalised in the 81stminute had a certain freakish quality about it, but it sent the game to extra time. England, who went into the following half hour without Bobby Charlton and Martin Peters, without looked ragged and it was almost inevitable that Gerd Müller, who had been largely anonymous for most of the game, should score the winner after 107 minutes.

England had been under terrible pressure in the second half as the Germans hit back. The media were clear about where the problem laid – England allowed their opponents in every game more chances as they created themselves. Nobody wanted to blame Bonetti, underlining the professionalism of the squad.

There was sense of shock afterwards, England had lost their crown to the country they had beaten in 1966. It was the beginning of the end of an era, especially for Ramsey. For four players, Bobby Charlton, Peter Bonetti, Keith Newton and Brian Labone, it proved to be their last international. Of the 1966 brigade, Nobby Stiles and Jack Charlton were also at the end of their England careers.

Geoff Hurst and Gordon Banks were gone within two years, Bobby Moore and Martin Peters lasted a little longer and finally, Alan Ball of the World Cup winners finished on the international stage in 1974-75 aged 30. The 1970 lads from Ramsey’s ideal eleven, Francis Lee and Terry Cooper were no longer required after 1972 and 1974 respectively. For every member of the 1970 squad, the World Cup would never come their way again, for England didn’t qualify again until 1982.

Journalist Alan Hughes, clearly no advocate of Ramsey, tried to extract some consolation from England’s elimination: “Perhaps defeat will benefit English football in the long run. There is every chance that had we kept the World Cup, most of our league teams would have been playing the functional but unentertaining 4-4-2 and bored the fans to death.”

Back home

Making comparisons is hard, but the popular view that the 1970 team was better than 1966 is even more difficult to assess. It might be easier to say that the 1970 side had experience and was perhaps “better liked” by the media and therefore the narrative was the team was better because we say it is. But England failed to beat the two strong teams they met in Mexico ’70, unlike their predecessors who had disposed of three good teams – Argentina, Portugal and West Germany. There is a theory that there were more proficient teams in 1970 than there were in 1966.

Taking one man at a time, you could argue players such as Terry Cooper, Alan Mullery, Brian Labone and Francis Lee were just as good as those they replaced. You could also make a case that Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and Alan Ball were more accomplished players in 1970. But as a unit, the 1966 team proved it could take on and beat the better opponents. Since 1966, the ability to dispose of really strong teams has somewhat eluded England and it may well have started with that World Cup. England’s two best games were both defeats in Mexico and for that reason, it is hard to agree with those that believe the 1970 team was a superior product. Bobby Charlton, who played in both teams, was asked some years later if the 1970 squad was better that 1966 and he opted for the side that won.

Certainly, by 1972, the 1970 team, if it had been better than 1966, should have been peaking in the Euros. It received another body blow, once more when coming up against the Germans, which really demonstrates that 1970 was really the end of something, rather than the start of something more promising.

 

@GameofthePeople

 

Martin Peters and immortality

WE expect our heroes to go on forever. Football fans are always drawn to the past, to the players that light-up our childhood and teenage years – individuals who were, when all was said and done, just a decade or so older than a 12 year-old fan. As time passes, the gap between the fan and his idols narrows, we eventually become part of the same bracket and with that, comes a reminder that we are all very much mortal.

Martin Peters West Ham United.

The passing of Martin Peters is another blow to the belief that we go on for eternity. He was, according to Sir Alf Ramsey, “10 years ahead of his time”. Well, time caught up with Peters, as it does with all of us, but what memories the former England international left behind.

Peters was one of the first “modern” players, capable of playing in a host of positions, steady, clever but rarely flashy. No small measure of skill, he had the uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time. But Peters could have been elevated even higher if Wolfgang Weber had not scored a very late equaliser in normal time at Wembley in July 1966. That goal sent the World Cup final into extra time and robbed Peters of the enormous honour of scoring the winning goal in England’s finest hour. The plaudits went to his West Ham team-mate, Geoff Hurst, but there was no doubt that Peters was one of England’s heroes in 1966.

When he left West Ham in 1970, Peters became a £ 200,000 player. In the transaction that took Jimmy Greaves to Upton Park, Spurs undoubtedly got the better deal, Peters was 26, Greaves was past his best, as his short stint at West Ham proved. He became one of the most durable players among the boys of ‘66, playing 724 games in total and eventually retiring in 1981.

As sad as it is to say farewell to an England legend, Martin Peters’ death underlines that our heroes are gradually fading away. Each year, the pool of 1960s and 1970s icons becomes smaller and smaller. The obituary section of the Rothman’s book (ok, now it’s the Sun book) gets bigger and bigger and the print smaller. We start to see players being recognised with similar birthdates to our own and we recognise more and more names from our Soccer Stars in Action albums. To quote David Bowie from his classic album, Aladdin Sane, time’s “script is you and me, boys”.

Some teams from the past have become decimated by old father time. Celtic’s Lisbon Lions side of 1967 seems to have been particularly cruelly treated recently. Six of their 11 heroes from that memorable day have passed away, including Billy McNeill and Steve Chalmers in 2019. The England 1966 final team has now lost five and 10 in the 22-man squad. Interestingly, the West German team beaten at Wembley has lost just two, Helmut Haller and Lothar Emmerich. The successors to England’s crown in 1970, the mighty Brazilians, have nine of their World Cup winning XI intact, with only Carlos Alberto and Felix saying farewell.

Tottenham Hotspur’s Martin Peters (l) heads the opening goal on his debut for the club, watched by Coventry City’s Willie Carr (r)

Some classic teams are disappearing fast, though. The Spurs double winners of 1961 and Ipswich Town’s surprise champions of 1962 have both lost seven of their regular 11. The Everton team of 1970 has seen six of its number pass away: Gordon West, Keith Newton, Sandy Brown, Howard Kendall, Brian Labone and Alan Ball, the youngest member of the 1966 England team. Five of this group were under the age of 70, demonstrating that a lot of footballers, their bodies battered and broken and scarred from years of pain-killing injections, do not live to a ripe old age.

The oldest fully intact Football League title winning team is possibly Derby County’s 1974-75 side, managed by the late Dave Mackay. With the exception of Roger Davies (69) and Steve Powell (64), this squad is in its 70s and includes David Nish, Colin Todd, Bruce Rioch, Archie Gemmill, Kevin Hector and Francis Lee. Nottingham Forest’s 1977-78 championship team is also still going strong. Conversely, the Wolves team of 1953-54 has completely succumbed to the march of time.

Increasingly, we hear news about former players who are suffering from dementia or similar conditions. We are living longer in the 21st century, but that means we become more vulnerable to the afflictions of ageing. Sadly, Martin Peters had suffered from this cruel disease and hence, he had become largely invisible over the past few years. We all know the Jeff Astle story, an outstanding player and decent man who was taken very young at the age of 59. The debate about the effect of heading the ball on the brain is ongoing and could change the face of football.

In 1966, Peters helped create English football history. Ramsey’s team was never given the credit it deserved until much later, but with each passing decade, the scale of achievement becomes even more remarkable. The England team was of its time, but Martin Peters, to reiterate Ramsey’s famous comment, was well into the next decade. Thankfully, the Peters legacy will live on and his place in football’s pantheon is assured.

While we remember the considerable achievements of an excellent player, let’s also remind ourselves that our heroes do not go on forever, so let’s enjoy them and respect their role in making football the most popular sport in the world. They might be placed on a pedestal by thousands of fans, but essentially, they are flesh and blood and just human beings. But winning the World Cup does make some of them rather special….

 

@GameofthePeople

 

Photos: PA