Football: Luther's lament for starved strikers

Nick Townsend finds famine is seldom the fault of the front men
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The Independent Online
THE ANGRY scars from collisions with a thousand opponents stand out like battle sites across the relief map that is Luther Blissett's forehead. The legs are, no doubt, similarly battered. But the pain he suffered during an era when the laws afforded significantly less protection to strikers was happily traded for those moments of ecstasy. Goals for Watford, Milan or England.

He recalls 15 December 1982, the day of his first full game for England at Wembley with the relish of a man who never tires of the memory.

"For me, on that day it all came right," says the now 41-year-old Watford coach of his hat-trick against Luxembourg in a 9-0 defeat of the perennial cannon fodder of European footballing nations. "I must have had five or six opportunities, and I scored three. I'll settle for any of our strikers next week to succeed with a similar ratio."

So too Kevin Keegan. He would delight in a similar total against the principality at Wembley next Saturday to help promote the team's self- belief just four days before England's final Group Five game against Poland in Warsaw.

But there are no such certainties these days. A record of eight goals in six qualifying games - and three of those came against Luxembourg in the away fixture and another three in a hat-trick from midfielder Paul Scholes against Poland - attests to the dismal state of England striking prowess.

Or does it? As an enthusiastic member of the Goalscorers and Allied Tradesmen's Union, Blissett believes the situation is a little more complex than that. "Unless you have got a couple of outstanding strikers, like a Ronaldo and a Michael Owen, that you must play, then you pick your forwards to complement the rest of the team, to finish the work they have started. They must fit into the overall structure and the whole mix has got to be right. At the moment it isn't right, particularly in midfield, possibly because players are not available. If it's not right then your front men can't do their job."

Nice theory. The problem is that it's still the forwards who tend to be censured for England's failures. As a player who received as many literary muggings from the critics as he did elbows and boots from opponents, Blissett can empathise with Alan Shearer, whose record since France 98 reads two England goals from run of play in seven games. "Alan will be as disappointed as everyone else," says Watford's top scorer over three periods with the club. "It doesn't matter what his overall performance is; as long as ball goes into the back of the net, then you're an asset to the team. When not doing that, people start to question you."

Blissett adds: "He's having a rough time at Newcastle, so to get away with England could be a good distraction for him and I hope he will do the business against Luxembourg. If he scored a couple, it would do wonders for his club performances when he got back." Pushed to elect his own selection to play alongside Shearer, the Watford man names a man Keegan has ignored, Dion Dublin. "Whenever he's played, Dion has not disappointed," he said. "He's always looked dangerous and capable. People say he's short of this and that, but that's rubbish. What he does is score goals, and always gives the opposition a hard time."

In his day, Blissett came into the same category, and endured similar carping from the pundits and some supporters. "You come to live with it," he says. "Do you know, in all my years at Watford I was never once player of the season? Even that year we finished second in the First Division and I made my debut for England I still never won it. People have got an expectation of you sometimes that's so high. They expect you to score 20-odd goals. They don't see it as any great achievement.

"But I've got no regrets about my career, except I was probably 10 years or so too early. I would love to be playing today. Overall my record was very good; people said I missed more than I scored, but so does every striker. For some reasons people pick on some players, like they do with Andy Cole today. With some players they just look at the negatives."

Ask him for an explanation and he pauses before responding: "It mystifies me. You could look at it and say, 'is it a colour thing?' But you don't want to cast that aspersion against people when you've got no proof."

Blissett, a garrulous and engaging character who is popular with everyone at Vicarage Road, broaches that particular issue not with any bitterness, but merely as an observation. Similarly, he prefers not to dwell on the dearth of black football managers in the British game, although if there is prejudice in football, as some of us suspect, it is clearly not going to stifle Blissett's ambition.

"Even at 23 or 24, I knew I wanted to stay in football," he says. "Management is where I want to be. In fact, Graham Taylor spoke to me on the same subject the other day and I said, 'Your job is the one I'd like'," Blissett says with a booming laugh, reminiscent of Kriss Akabusi.

It was Taylor who brought him back into the Watford fold four years ago from the obscurity of Fakenham Town, in the Jewson Premier League. "Having been out of the professional game, it was a great feeling to get that call from Graham," says Blissett. "He amazes me with the things he does and how much thought he gives to everything.

"We would all like to think that we could put a team together, and get it to play in a manner that reflects us. It's an opportunity that I think will one day come for me."