Football: Stars in our eyes and lumps in our throats

THE FOOTBALL League celebrated their 100th season with a glittering Evening of Legends dinner in London last week. One hundred players were selected by a panel of football writers to mark this unique occasion. The players were chosen not necessarily as the best to grace the League since its inception in 1888, but ones who, by their reputation and achievement, quite simply and unarguably stood out.

There was no entertainment in the usual manner of these glitzy functions; there was no top table of self-important dignitaries; no guest of honour; `merely' an unforgettable array of reminiscences as one after another of the names who made our national sport what it is today came forward to be given a special commemorative medal.

Over 50 of the luminaries were present in person or, in the case of some of those sadly no longer alive, represented by a family member. Ray Stubbs compered the event, Bryon Butler introduced the legends, and Brian Moore, Gerald Sinstadt and Gary Newbon interviewed them against a backdrop of video footage from more modern times, grainy black and white film from the Thirties and Forties, and faded photographs from the earliest days. We had stars in our eyes and occasionally a lump in the throat, as we sat on the edge of our seats listening to some fascinating insights.

Johnny Haynes told how Fulham chairman Tommy Trinder almost bit his tongue after rashly promising to make the England captain the first pounds 100 per week player following the abolition of the maximum wage in 1960. Haynes then disappeared into the audience to collect autographs. Alex Young, Everton's Golden Vision of the sixties, followed his example, after reminding us that Everton were once top dogs, and not just on Merseyside.

Ossie Ardiles, that gift to impressionists, thanked fellow legend Tommy Smith for welcoming him to English football with a chest-high tackle in 1978. Glenn Hoddle made light of his removal from the England job and looked forward to a new challenge.

Sir Geoff Hurst, Martin Peters and Bobby Moore's widow Stephanie took the stage together to talk about the courage and leadership of Moore and the astuteness of Sir Alf Ramsey, a legend himself. Ramsey, apparently, had selected Jack Charlton for England at the age of 30 not because he was the finest centre-half in the country but because he was best equipped to tidy up any slips if Moore became too adventurous.

For Hurst, the best goal of his World Cup final hat-trick was not the memorable final galloping effort, nor the shot adjudged to have crossed the line by the Azerbaijani linesman, but his first strike, a product of the Chadwell Heath training ground, as he broke swiftly to head home Moore's free kick.

Johnny Giles could not understand the phrase "a passing team". For him, the very essence of football was passing. No team could hope to win without passing. He talked about passing. And talked. And talked, before eventually passing the microphone back to a somewhat bemused Newbon. We got the message.

Unannounced, Sir Stan Matthews guided a frail Wilf Mannion on to the stage. Neither said much. There was no need. Paul Gascoigne's unique talent and his achievements for England in the 1990 World Cup and the European Championship 1996 won him a place. He apologised to his fellow legends for some of the off field antics that have marred his reputation.

There was a clip of John Charles playing in Italy. His colleagues looked like pygmies alongside the gentle giant, who told the audience he preferred playing centre forward to centre-half because attackers attracted more plaudits.

Gordon Taylor, whose Professional Footballers Association were the main sponsors of the evening, spoke movingly about his Union's founder, the Welsh rebel Billy Meredith. Another rebel, Len Shackleton, was, well, Len Shackleton.

The words `legend', `reputation' and `achievement' lead inevitably to much argument. The 100 players selected all stood out. However, it must have been difficult to omit World Cup winners and one-club men such as George Cohen and Jack Charlton. Legend? Reputation?

Achievement? What more could they have done? I understand Brian Clough was overlooked only because a high proportion of his many goals were scored in the then Second Division. And what about England international Roger Byrne, Manchester United's captain, who lost his life at Munich?

But the Evening of Legends was not a time to quibble, rather for unashamedly wallowing in marvellous memories and wondering who will gain a place in the next hundred seasons' collection of entertainers. Good luck, then, to Michael Owen, David Beckham, Alan Smith, Joe Cole and Nwankwo Kanu. Maybe your exploits in the opening years of the next century will be celebrated a hundred years from now. I hope so.