Football: Rugged British centre-forwards are a dying breed

EVEN IN an era of gifted foreign influence, no playing role is more widely associated with British football that that of the robust centre- forward.

From the rugged attacking heroes of legend, on through such notable figures as Nat Lofthouse, Bobby Smith, Tommy Taylor, Mick Jones, Malcolm Macdonald and Alan Shearer, the function remains central to how the game in this country is perceived abroad, evoking as much scorn as respect.

In his splendid book The Football Man, published in 1968, Arthur Hopcraft wrote of Lofthouse: "He was built in the manner required for the times, with a navvy's forearms and shoulders and a special darkness of expression when he was playing which reflected his intention of single-minded antagonism for the other team's defenders. He was described in print both as 'a bear' and 'a lion', and certainly any sportswriter looking for a suitable comparison in the animal world would have to keep clear of the antelope department."

Never sent off and rarely spoken to by referees in 503 games for Bolton Wanderers and 33 international appearances, Lofthouse was only half-joking when recently agreeing that a ferocious goalscorer of his type would find it difficult in today's climate to stay out of trouble. "I took it and I gave it," he said when we spoke, "but hardness was more acceptable in my time. I can't imagine playing today in the way I did without getting put off."

If Shearer is not exactly "The Lion of Vienna" reincarnate, he represents enough of the tradition for his dismissal by Uriah Rennie when turning out for Newcastle United against Aston Villa last week to suggest an endangered species.

That is one side of a controversy heightened by mitigating televisual evidence. Another is the capital Shearer has frequently made out of his status. Lofthouse's philosophy of giving and taking is still well supported in the British game and is, to my mind, healthier than the spite consistently evident in other countries. However it is possible that Shearer has pushed the authorities too far and can no longer count on being able to get away with barging illegally into defenders and the tolerance of officials.

One reason for Shearer's comparative ineffectiveness in last year's World Cup finals was that referees identified England's centre-forward as the culprit, not the victim, of tussles that he had grown used to exploiting in the Premiership.

Another was the refusal of experienced international defenders to be drawn into Shearer's back. Shortly before England met Romania I fell into conversation with their coaches about a ploy from which England's coach at the time, Glenn Hoddle, confidently expected to win free-kicks within range of goal. "We have studied Shearer closely," one of them said. "He gets away with many fouls and fools referees into penalising defenders. I think our defenders will be too smart for him." They were.

Concerning the centre-forward's appreciation of martial arts, there is the story of the limited attacker who was signed simply to hold up the ball until more technically gifted colleagues could support him. He did this to the manager's satisfaction but was advised to take a lesson in retaliation.

This lesson involved drawing an opponent in and then lunging over the ball. "Roll it up slow," he was instructed by a couple of team-mates who knew a thing or two about inflicting pain. "Have you got it," they patiently asked. "Roll it up slow," they said, "then over."

The student's first attempt at this filthy trick caused a broken leg. His. "Roll it up slow," he was heard muttering on the stretcher.

As for Shearer it will be interesting to see how the season develops for him. His resilience has been magnificently displayed in twice recovering from serious injuries, but they have left him with limited mobility.

Sly fouling is not the answer. There is documentary evidence of what some footballers revert to when they are no longer confident of disturbing the opposition. Does Alan Shearer hope to do better?