I recently found myself watching a replay of the 1988 FA Cup final between the ‘Crazy Gang’ of Wimbledon and a heavily favoured Liverpool side on late-night television. As the footage cut out, I flipped the channel to see another film lost to history, General Douglas MacArthur’s farewell speech to Congress where he poignantly proclaimed: “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”
Somehow, that FA Cup final with the grit and grind of Wimbledon battling against the then kings of English football, Liverpool, echoed MacArthur’s words. I watched as Peter Beardsley streaked down the left flank only to be confronted by a blue wall of Wimbledon players blocking his advance. Beardsley’s shot smashed off a defender and bounced to John Barnes who crossed to a waiting John Aldridge and Ray Houghton in the box only for a gut-busting run by Alan Cork to put off Aldridge. In many ways, it was an example of surgical football by Liverpool against defiant football by Wimbledon; a team of magicians versus a team of gritty grinders. Grit won that day.
Watching modern football, you realise the game is now a lithe blend of speed and fluidity on the pitch. Today’s game requires smoother movements combined with a higher level of requisite technique across every position on the pitch. Today’s footballer has to show some degree of dexterity as the game continues to rely on interchange and technical ability with an increased speed of play.
Defenders need to be technically adept rather than masters of hoofing the ball out of the stadium, midfielders must combine finesse and fitness, and strikers are required to be the embodiment of athleticism with an assassin’s aim. But, regardless of what team is playing and in what league, there’s something, or rather, someone, missing in the modern game: the on-field general.
He’s the man who urges his team-mates on when all seems lost, the team’s soldier, the man who demands that his team-mates pull themselves up by their bootstraps and fight to the end. These gladiators of football are the ones who look up at the scoreboard – realise the result may be lost – and then look through the others on the pitch and fight past the final whistle. For them, the losses aren’t purely statistical – they’re engrained in a man’s character and absorbed in his eyes. To this Legionnaire of league football, regardless of level, there is no giving up. They wear defeat like a shroud on Tuesday morning’s training session and let everyone know how unacceptable giving up is at their football club.
But are these types of players nothing more than glorified cheerleaders whose enthusiasm and toughness make up for their lack of technique and finesse on the pitch? Has the modern game changed the modern player to the point that only internal motivation and individual reward pushes them onwards as they are not programmed to compute any external on-field instruction?
Would a Roy Keane-like figure have saved the Red Devils from the apathy that choked Manchester United last season? Does Arsenal need another Patrick Vieira, someone to lay the boots down and grab players from off the delicate Emirates pitch surface and hurl them back into battle? Does this type of player still exist in an age where diving and simulation, feigning injury during a capitulating defeat, and a lack of personal accountability are a normal sight for the supporters? Do we value the battlers, the grinders, and jacks of all trades in football anymore?
• • • •
Read | Behind the red mist of Roy Keane
• • • •
For all their faults as men, and sometimes, as team-mates, there’s a nostalgia associated with the no-nonsense footballer. The uncompromising tackler who snubs doubt and stares down defeat in a tragically heroic way as to suggest to his opponent:“You may win the game, but you won’t defeat me.”
One can argue that these players still exist, but they’re better versions of this archetypal on-field general. Liverpool had Steven Gerrard and Manchester City have Vincent Kompany; two gifted stalwarts whose talent is only eclipsed by their rejection of anything less than total commitment from their peers. For all his personal issues, John Terry has shown a proclivity to lead his Chelsea sides to great heights, but he’s also been known to flop and show far too many inconsistencies when many suggest he’s a better footballer than that.
The aforementioned types of leaders are also captains of their respective sides, which many might suggest is a prerequisite for such displays of leadership and regular impassioned performances. But there has to be more to it than wearing the armband. Players like Tony Adams, Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira and the like of yesteryear were not saints. They battled their own demons off the pitch as well as on it.
Tony Adams, for example, has fought his way through a harder battle than any football match in his struggle with addiction and alcoholism. Roy Keane, for all his bravado and midfield presence qualities, has brought the game into disrepute on a number of occasions and can’t seem to check his ego at the door. The Irishman’s fiery temper and willingness to publicly criticise his team-mates at United and expose the inadequacies of the FAI cost him dearly, in a sense. Steven Gerrard was fortunate to escape harsher punishment for a nightclub punch-up in Southport in late 2008. Perhaps what makes these men quality leaders also accounts for their enigmatic personalities. Football is not a sport for the angelic, and the professional player is not a commoner.
Leadership is a quality that surely ostracises the trailblazer and forces him to swim against the stream lest he risk drowning himself in the waters of mediocrity. The problem with having leaders in modern football is that the game is bigger than it was a decade or two ago. The world, in many ways, has grown overly sensitive, as have its players. Egos are bruised with any public criticism and the hairdryer treatment is often seen as a lack of control instead of a motivating call to action. Modern football doesn’t want soldiers; it wants magicians and wizards. Supporters must balance whether they want battlers or exhibitionists.
Where is a player sans the skill of a Steven Gerrard or the quality of a Vincent Kompany, but with their leadership qualities factor in a present-day Arsenal or Manchester United squad? Would they even be picked? Have football academies and attitudes shifted and evolved in such a way that a team’s ‘hard man’ is not only far from being the first name on the team sheet, it’s not even in the squad?
Football is a game of delicate balance. For every flamboyant player capable of dazzling the world with the magic in his boots, there should be an unwavering presence to defend the bulwarks. Quite frankly, the evolution of the game has been so rapid in the past decade that many of the tackles and confrontations on the pitch back then would not be tolerated in today’s game. I’ve often wondered what’s more fascinating: the soft fouls and pitiful theatrics in modern football, or the over-the-top, no-nonsense tackles of yesterday’s football. Would the brilliant Graeme Souness survive in the modern game?
• • • •
Read | Steven Gerrard: the captain before and beyond the armband
• • • •
Candidly speaking, there will always be ugliness in the game, but there was something more redeeming from seeing the players care so much off the field. In 2005 at Highbury, Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira brought the tension to a crescendo in the tunnel before the match in a spat that galvanised even the neutral. Even if the confrontation was overdone for the camera, it provided the world with a front row view of the game within the game. What was the fight over? Two captains defending their teammates. Keane defending Gary Neville and Vieira defending Robert Pires.
There’d be no pulling out of tackles. The fans wouldn’t allow it because the generals on the pitch wouldn’t allow it. These days, there’s something refreshing in seeing a defender wear black boots instead of neon green or hot pink ones. Players like Liverpool’s blue collar academy product, Jon Flanagan, or Aston Villa’s less-than-flashy, part-time rugby fly-half (I jest) Mile Jedinak remind supporters and viewers of Premier League football that there is a place for the orthodox, old-fashioned player in the game.
But there’s an ugly side to the on-field general – a selfishness that oftentimes leads to reckless action that can cost the team dearly. A personal vendetta gone too far that proves to be more a distraction and hindrance than benefit for the team, like Roy Keane’s horror tackle on Manchester City’s Alf-Inge Håland, which effectively ended the Norwegian’s career. And for what? A comment made in a previous match – a chance to physically crush the “enemy” out of personal savagery? One might think that football has no patience for petulance, but if that was the case, the diving and cheating would be punished with more severity instead of being met with more tolerance and regularity.
Every week, pundits argue and squabble over the flair in the game and the controversy surrounding a penalty decision or rash tackle. To advocate for more over-the-ball, knee-high tackles is foolish, but there should also be a place in a side for the general. The impact of great leaders has impacted the best teams in leagues outside of England.
What Carles Puyol was to Barcelona and Gennaro Gattuso was to AC Milan cannot be taught. The Fabio Cannavaros and Paolo Maldinis of the world have faded into the shadows. Where are the players striving to emulate the likes of Franco Baresi and Franz Beckenbauer? The reality is players with the leadership and consistency of those players is seen less and less in football.
You cannot buy a ‘leader’, but if it was possible, if leadership was an attribute modern football still valued as a premium, perhaps there would be some solace for the supporters of clubs like Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, and Manchester United to name but a few sides who desperately need a general to rally the troops against all odds.
Performance counts for everything in football. Teams and players are judged on results, not character traits. The soldiers of the game are disappearing and in their place is the football mercenary, the glory-hunting, heavy-earning, often responsibility-shirking player with more talent at their disposal than many of the on-field generals could ever hope to muster.
The game has never seen more skill across the broad spectrum of players that step across the white lines every match. The game has never been faster, more fitness-focused, and more dependent on money than it is now. There is a saying that natural leaders are born, not made, and judging by the modern game, the role of the on-field general looks consigned to fade.
By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3