Look up a club's roll of honour, and almost without exception the man who got most goals in a season did so when defences were less structured and fitness levels low enough to allow players with skill the time and space to employ it. Goals did not flow in the decades around the Second World War, they arrived in torrents.
So what is happening at Portsmouth? There, in full colour, in the eye-alarming strips of modern times and amid the claustrophobic rearguards of today is a throwback to the past. Guy Whittingham yesterday broke Billy 'Farmer' Haines' 66-year-old scoring record of 43 goals.
They have been accrued in 49 appearances - in the First Division he has an even better strike rate: 39 from 41. The Ladbrokes' betting stall in Fratton Park had Whittingham at 11-4 to open the scoring against Peterborough this week, prohibitive odds in a field of 22. He obliged, of course, causing a spokesman for the bookmakers to mutter: 'Given his record this season, the price was probably too generous.' In an era when 20-goal strikers are described as prolific, Whittingham defies description.
The opening 21 minutes were a cameo of his season. Whittingham had the ball six times: twice he misplaced passes, twice he found his man; twice he scored. Outside the penalty area he was ordinary, inside it deadly. Each goal was executed with the minimum of bother, a left-footed volley for the first, instant control and a shot for the second. Even his celebration, a short wave of his arm, was simplicity itself. Whittingham looked as if he did not believe he might miss.
He has given that impression from the moment the season kicked off on 15 August, against Bristol City. Whittingham completed the first of his four hat- tricks that day and, his esteem sufficiently buffed, has continued ever since. 'Goalscoring is about confidence,' he said, 'and I've had it from the start.'
If that comes across as the usual cliches footballers employ, Whittingham is far from the norm. At 28 he has the professional experience that most players acquire before they get the key to the door. It is only four years since he bought himself out of the army for pounds 450, and in theory he should still be learning his trade.
Alan Ball was the Portsmouth manager who took a gamble on the extraordinarily fit soldier who had scored 93 goals in 110 games for the Army, Waterlooville and Yeovil in 1988-89. Ball was sacked a month later but the men who followed have recouped heavily on his investment. After initial misgivings about his non-penalty area play, Jim Smith, the present incumbent, likens Whittingham to other finishers he has employed: John Aldridge, Mick Quinn, Frank Worthington and Trevor Francis.
'John probably had more goal awareness than anyone I've known,' he said, 'but Guy's not far away. He's like John in training, too, hardly ever scores. You see Guy in five-a-sides and you wonder 'how's he got 40 goals?' It's as if they can't be bothered unless it's the real thing. Quinny always put the ball in the net, no problem. He'd be happy getting 100 goals a day. And Francis? 'Ah,' he said, appreciatively. 'He was special. He did things that almost no one else could have done. Mind you, he'd not have scored the number of goals Guy's got.'
What Whittingham and Francis do have in common is extra labour. Francis would refine his skills after his Birmingham team-mates had left training, and Whittingham uses his spare time to improve his mobility and suppleness with the athletics coach, Arvel Lowe, at Team Solent, which includes Roger Black and Kriss Akabusi among its members.
Whittingham has also adopted an athletes' diet, rich in pasta and carbohydrates. 'The extra fitness means I'm faster over five yards,' he said. 'You have to be really sharp to keep scoring.
The overtures from Premier League clubs, possibly deterred by his background, have been scarce. Wimbledon made a speculative offer two years ago, but since then the bigger clubs have been conspicuous by their absence. 'I wasn't surprised when no one came in for me on transfer deadline day,' he added. 'With the recession the way it is, there's not a lot of money around and people are not prepared to part with the kind of money the club wants for me.
'But I'm not complaining. I wanted to stay with Portsmouth for the promotion run-in anyhow. I've always wanted a crack at the Premier League and hopefully I can do it with this club.'
On Tuesday, the Peterborough defenders appeared to have accepted that as fact. Long before Whittingham had completed his hat-trick, they had abandoned the usual scapegoating, their body language doing the talking on the lines of 'he's unstoppable, isn't he?' In fact, his fallibility was exposed when he missed a penalty.
It did not concern Smith. 'I'm sure he'll get another goal before the end of the season,' he said. At his current rate it could be six.
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