Bould's defence of a dying art is undiminished

Sunderland's stalwart centre-half is enjoying a second wind among Peter Reid's Wearsiders.
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ONE OF Steve Bould's team-mates at Stoke City before he left to become part of Arsenal's legendary back four, Alan Hudson, recently dubbed him "the Bobby Moore of the Potteries". Tickled as he is to be likened to the late, great interceptor, Sunderland's defensive enforcer favours a more robust way of stopping strikers.

ONE OF Steve Bould's team-mates at Stoke City before he left to become part of Arsenal's legendary back four, Alan Hudson, recently dubbed him "the Bobby Moore of the Potteries". Tickled as he is to be likened to the late, great interceptor, Sunderland's defensive enforcer favours a more robust way of stopping strikers.

In the school of hard knocks and even harder challenges where the 36-year-old Bould learned his trade, the ball was there to be won. Everything, including personal safety, was secondary to that basic imperative. Nowadays, though, his perception of English football is far removed from the sport which, according to Frank Leboeuf, is blighted by violence.

As third-placed Sunderland prepared for tomorrow's Premiership visit to Moore's old club, West Ham - which could end with their leading the top section outside the season's opening week for the first time since 1953 - Bould lamented the extent to which he maintains the legislators have tinkered with the balance between negating and creating. "The game has changed," he said, "particularly with regard to the tackle from behind and the offside law.

"I think it was Alan Hansen or Trevor Brooking who reckoned players like me and Tony [Adams] wouldn't be able to handle the changes. In fact, we've adapted. What I try to do is put myself in a position where I can cut out the danger, rather than give the forward a good clout like you used to get away with.

"But seriously, it's completely weighted in their favour now. They're trying to take the tackle out of the game, make it non-contact. You can't blow on a striker without getting pulled up."

Bould's defence of "a dying art" is not made simply out of a spoilsport's pleasure in stifling skill. He argues that if attackers are no longer compelled to use their ingenuity to find ways of outwitting markers, the spectacle will suffer.

Away from these broader concerns, Bould is relishing the specific task of building a new career in the North-east. Eleven years as the most unlikely of southern softies brought a handsome haul of medals and caps, yet he had become increasingly unfulfilled as a squad player rather than an automatic choice.

"I felt I'd been sitting on the subs' bench too much at Arsenal. The easy option would have been to carry on like that, stay on my backside and pick up good money, but I didn't fancy that. I wanted to play as many games as possible in the limited time I'd got left."

Being an understudy also had an unexpected psychological effect on the seemingly indomitable stopper. "I was losing my confidence," Bould said. "I'd be watching some young player and thinking: 'What a good header that was - could I have made it?' The doubts disappeared whenever I got on, but it was a strange feeling."

Liverpool had a sniff during the summer but balked at paying £500,000 for a player closer to 40 than 30. One Scouser, the Sunderland manager, Peter Reid, had no such qualms.

"It did concern me that the club were relegated straight away the last two times they were promoted, but I wanted the challenge," Bould explained. "Mind you, with the start I had, the Sunderland people must have wondered what they had signed."

Driving into the Stadium of Light on his first day, Bould smashed into a lamp-post on "the most spacious car-park you've ever seen". He also lost his mobile phone and scored "a cracking own goal" in a friendly at Rangers. "It was all going wrong," he said, "and then we got stuffed at Chelsea on the first day."

Following that defeat, 4-0 going on 10-0, Bould and his new colleagues were dissected and derided on television and in print. But any doubts about his capacity to prosper without Tony Adams or Martin Keown alongside him, or indeed Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit in front, were swiftly banished.

His partnership with Paul Butler blossomed once he moved out of a hotel and settled in Cleveland. He found himself hugely stimulated by the 40,000 crowds and the thunderous backing, which reminds him of the vociferous Stoke crowd of his youth ("the Arsenal lads couldn't believe the noise when they played up here").

Collectively, Sunderland reacted positively to the embarrassment of Stamford Bridge. Instead of panicking or sulking, they set about analysing and rectifying their flaws. It is a measure of their improvement that tomorrow they are seeking a sixth consecutive win in the top flight for the first time in 86 years.

Their defensive record is better than Arsenal's, and Tony Adams claimed this week that Bould is missed more than Nicolas Anelka. Sunderland are scoring freely, too, through another ex-Gunner, Niall Quinn ("a cult figure; there's even a pop single out about his disco pants"), and Kevin Phillips ("one of the most natural goalscorers I've seen; he reminds me of Ian Wright").

Bould, unsurprisingly, cautions against carried away. "There's a growing self-belief among the players. But the priority is still staying up and there's a long way to go yet. Talk of Europe is far too premature. Finishing in the top half would be very satisfying."

Such circumspection is, of course, at odds with the heady mood on Wearside. However, it is also the manager's position. Having served George Graham and Arsÿne Wenger, Bould may have thought he had seen everything, but Reid has a style of his own.

"He's completely different from those two on the training ground. The sessions are left to Bobby Saxton [the Sunderland coach], but he's out there in his tracksuit, watching, and he doesn't miss a trick." A Cloughie for the millennium, as the chairman, Bob Murray, hailed Reid? "That's probably right in that sometimes we don't see him for a few days, but come a match day he makes his presence felt."

Sunderland work with a fitness expert and the team bus no longer stops for fish and chips; signs that Bould's new "gaffer" is prepared to embrace similar philosophies to the Frenchman he credits with prolonging his career.

"I probably wouldn't be playing now but for Arsÿne Wenger. It wasn't so much his dietary regime - most people understand the importance of looking after yourself now - but his training methods. The stretching and recovery exercises. Knowing when not to train."

Such influences, together with his leadership qualities, make Bould appear ideal management material. For once he will not go steaming in. "I've thought about it and I'm in a dilemma. I've got a young family and I'm not sure whether I want to spend 24 hours a day under that sort of pressure.

"Not many go in at the level David O'Leary has... but then he always was lucky. One of my best mates, Steve Parkin, manages Rochdale, where there's no money, and I know the workload he has."

The emotional pull of Stoke may test his resolve one day. For the time being he just wants to play as long as he can. "Sometimes Peter Reid says at training: 'You don't have to do that run'. But I want to, to make sure I can do them in a match situation."

Bould, currently captaining Sunderland, will need to be at his sharpest against "the best West Ham side I can recall", especially the trickery of Paolo Di Canio and Paulo Wanchope. Where better than Upton Park to strut his Bobby Moore stuff?