Football: No place for mavericks in this age of team men

Pat Nevin, the Scotland international, ponders the passing of the prima donna, the entertainer who plays to the crowd
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The Independent Online
JUST about every country has at least one, others are blessed (or cursed) with a few. Scotland can lay claim to Duncan Ferguson as their maverick, England had Paul Gascoigne and Matthew Le Tissier. The French can boast David Ginola, while over the years the Dutch have managed to produce teams full of them.

From Northern Ireland's super maverick, George Best, to the Brazilian Rai, these most individual of individuals have obliged managers to try various methods of coping with them. The problem for the men in charge is that any football fan with the most basic knowledge can see that, usually, these players possess more raw talent than most of the rest of the team put together.

However, even some of the greatest managers have failed to help these mavericks to maximise their potential and produce more than just sporadic moments of brilliance. Leaving Gazza out of England's squad for the World Cup finals in France at the last moment, simply signalled that Glenn Hoddle had finally run out of patience.

Even Sir Matt Busby could only keep George Best at the top for a mere seven or eight years, a criminal waste, and Jock Stein acknowledged the difficulty of keeping such talented players at their peak and making their optimum contribution to the team. He said of Jimmy Johnstone: "My greatest achievement in football was to keep that wee man playing football five years longer than he otherwise would have."

In an era when the game was less professional, there was a wider margin for error and defeat didn't have a crippling financial cost, a team could carry the occasional prima donna who appeared to play more for himself than for the team. Now that there is less scope for teams to take chances, particularly at international level, the role of the maverick has been marginalised almost to the point of extinction.

Craig Brown told me how he, as Scotland's manager, deals with these players - indeed if he would even bother to work with them at all. "I learned a lot from watching and talking to Jack Charlton when he took over the Irish job," Brown said. "[Liam] Brady and [Frank] Stapleton were the top stars but they were bombed out almost immediately because Jack didn't think they were playing the way he wanted them to. Nothing personal, they were fine players, but they weren't fitting into his system. Jack took a huge amount of stick at the time but, of course, he did have great success in the end with his methods."

But having said that, Brown was at pains to stress that he is not dismissive of Duncan Ferguson's potential contribution to his national team. "If he would have made himself available he could have been used in certain circumstances," he said.

It isn't just the kick and rush teams having to make the most of the limited number of players available that have turned their backs on these players. Even the Brazilians, the champions of style and individualism, have had to accept that talent needs to be allied to workrate and overall respect for the team ethic.

Carlos Alberto Parreira, the Brazilian who will be guiding Saudi Arabia through France 98, has explained why the talented Rai was replaced in Brazil's team by the less gifted, ageing stalwart Dunga. Rai failed to follow tactical orders precisely, whereas Dunga appreciated his true importance in relation the team and the country.

Nowadays, there are even conferences where the biggest names in world football discusshow, and indeed if, hot-shot mavericks can be integrated into a team. The leading coaches are more and more coming round to the idea that the breed's failures far outnumber their successes the higher up the ladder they go.

One of his biggest influences on thinking in this area has been Hilary Owen, of the Red Arrows, through his book "Creating Top Flight Teams". "The group dynamics were explained in wonderful detail. They had to live together as a unit because they knew that up there if you didn't trust your team mates you had no chance. Hot shot or not, it was at least as important to be a good colleague as it was to be a good flyer."

Many now think that the best way to employ a maverick is as a substitute, a wild card to be thrown on either in a crisis or to try to break a stalemate between two well matched outfits. It is amazing that Glenn Hoddle is not even giving Gazza this bit part.

The problem, of course, is that these maestros don't usually take kindly to being asked to play second fiddle. I recall one swaggering star commenting after his international debut, which happened to be a friendly: "I can't get my head right for these part games, I need the real thing."

Because of the modern approach to such players, this World Cup will see fewer of the "entertainers" than previous ones have. As each commentator, journalist or fan settles down for a game the first thing they want to know is who is the star, who is the one player capable of that moment of genius which will raise people out of their seats? The problem is, that player is likely to be sitting down himself, either on the bench or, like Gazza, on his sofa at home. All we are left to wonder at this time is the magnificent, Balkan belligerence of the ageing Bulgarian Hristo Stoichkov or his Romanian counterpart, Gheorghe Hagi.

So while we may pine for the unpredictable excesses of Gascoigne, the indolent individualism of Le Tissier or the Gallic strut of a new Eric Cantona, the coaches will not miss them quite as much. Unless, of course, the player in question is as good as the king of them all, Diego Maradona. Then he doesn't need a team, he can win a World Cup almost single-handedly, as England know to their cost.

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