James Lawton: Let Neville and his fast-lane team-mates give us a reason to forget the Boys of '66
What is Neville proposing? Not a black-out on English football's finest hour?
Tuesday 30 May 2006
Around the time Gary Neville was attending the Beckham party the nation finally got to see on television - and marvel at vulgarity worthy of the last days of the Roman Empire - the Manchester United captain was expressing a certain weariness at having to hear and read about the deeds of the Boys of '66.
This was perfectly understandable. All his life, and even these later days when he is said to be part of a great generation of native-born players, Neville has had to wade in the after-glow of Bobby Moore's men.
It is something that, when you think about it, would eventually wear down a proud professional yearning to make his own imprint on football history. But then what is he proposing? Surely not a black-out on the finest hours of English football? Demanding, perhaps impossible though it may seem, Neville and his team-mates have only one solution. Forty years on, they have to make England's only World Cup winners, if not old hat - anyone who ever saw them as that would be in desperate need of a new head - then less than unique in the annals of the national game.
That uniqueness, that undying splendour, for the moment can only be reinforced by those who remember what Moore's men achieved, and how self-effacingly they did it.
One key reason, of course, was that they were properly managed. Jimmy Greaves, the greatest goalscorer in the land, didn't play beyond the group games, while Johnny Haynes, the sublime playmaker, didn't even make the squad, because Sir Alf Ramsey was unsure of their fitness. The Beckham bash, with all its implications of triumphalism and cheap celebrity, could not have happened at any time, still less than a few weeks before the start of the World Cup. For one reason: not even the great captain Moore was allowed to presume he would automatically be playing in the first World Cup match.
There is not the space nor the time to explore all the differences between the Englands of Moore and Beckham, but even allowing for the sensitivities of Gary Neville some of them refuse to be suppressed.
One was inevitably provoked this week by the lionisation of Steven Gerrard after his fine season. One newspaper breathlessly announced: "Here is marathon man Stevie G's amazing 59-game record for 2005-06 ... and the World Cup is still to come!" An impressive list, it was, too, as it wended its way through Champions' League, World Cup qualifying, Premiership, FA Cup and Carling Cup action. But, amazing? Sir Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles, the only Englishmen to have won both the World Cup and the European Cup, were not invited to comment, which given their invariably diplomatically expressed patriotism is probably just as well.
Let's start with Gerrard's 2005-06 season before moving on to the '65-66 of Charlton and Stiles. Gerrard appeared 59 times for Liverpool and England - but a little statistical analysis modifies that total. In 21 of his games Gerrard was replaced or came on as a substitute, and on one critical occasion, the derby match against Everton, was sent off with 72 minutes still to go. In all Gerrard missed 469 minutes of play, which is to say the equivalent of five whole matches and a substantial bit of another one. So in reality the total is a significantly less amazing 54 matches.
The seasons of Charlton and Stiles were certainly rather more prodigious even before they played in all six of the World Cup-winning England matches on the notoriously stamina-sapping Wembley turf. Charlton played in the Charity Shield curtain raiser, 38 league games, eight European Cup ties, seven FA Cup ties and 10 England internationals before the start of the World Cup. That made a total of 64 games, 10 more than the Gerrard season launched against the Welsh village team TNS in Champions' League qualifying action.
Stiles went one better than Charlton, making an extra league appearance in the old 42-match programme. At the time neither Charlton nor Stiles, no more than their admirers, thought this epic, still less amazing. They were doing what they were required to do, and on playing surfaces which for much of the season were so heavy they might have doubled as locations for the re-enactment of trench warfare. Imagining the kind of surfaces on which Premiership teams operate today - except if they are Chelsea and anticipating a visit from Ronaldinho and Co - would have been the purest fantasy.
More than 10 years later, when such aid and comfort as the power to make substitutions had long been part of the game, the physical effort of such as Charlton and Stiles was still not widely seen as something phenomenal - and certainly not at Anfield in season '76-77, when Liverpool won their first European Cup and the league title and were denied the previously undreamed "treble" by Manchester United in the FA Cup final. Including the Charity Shield, Liverpool played a total of 62 competitive games. England internationals Emlyn Hughes and Ray Clemence played in every match.
None of this is to minimise Gerrard's excellent season, nor to obscure the fact that he has mostly gloried in his chance to establish himself as one of England's major hopes in Germany in the next few weeks. Indeed, Gerrard is perhaps the greatest victim of England coach Sven Goran Eriksson's bizarre and desperately unprofessional preoccupation with the medical file of Wayne Rooney.
The importance of Rooney is self-evident, but waiting so obsessively to see if he is fit enough to go through the motions of playing in the later stages of the tournament - and if you asked any pro from the moment Rooney collapsed in pain he would have told you that anything more will be a miracle - has been a classic example of how not to build the right levels of team confidence.
Maybe the point to remember - and not least by Gary Neville - is that all those years ago England won the World Cup without Greaves, without Haynes, without grotesque parties, and - the record insists - much of a breather.
Forget '66? Neville and his fast-lane team-mates must first give us the beginnings of a reason.
Schumacher's ruthlessness has become a disease beyond any cure
Anyone who saw Michael Schumacher win the Spanish Grand Prix in a monsoon at the Circuit de Catalunya before he was underpinned by the might of Ferrari is naturally slow to urge his banishment from Formula One.
But there is a point where no amount of driving genius can compensate for ruthless ambition becoming a disease, and we can only presume that now, after all the years of astonishing success, the Kaiser of the track has gone beyond a cure. Jacques Villeneuve, a driver of great talent who has always recognised that there is a life beyond the pit lane, makes the point that certain actions disqualify a man from the right to perform in a still dangerous sport. The Canadian had a taste of the seven-time champion's cynicism in Cadiz nine years ago when Schumacher tried to drive him off the track. Fernando Alonso, the latest to muster the impertinence to deprive Schumacher of a world title, fought hard to muffle his rage on Saturday when the German sabotaged a run for pole by literally parking his car on the circuit.
After Cadiz, the authorities gave Schumacher, who had already lost the title, a meaningless points deduction and made him front a road safety campaign. In Monaco he was sent to the back of the grid. If his sport really cared for anything more than money-making profile it would tell him it was time to go. It always is when you have forgotten the meaning of what you do.
Sam shades Sven as top lap-dog
It wasn't forced out of Sam Allardyce. No one had to use a thumbscrew. He admitted it to his "official" World Cup newspaper.
He flew to Madrid to sound out David Beckham's reaction to his potential appointment as England coach. The temptation is to use the cliché of the age: "You couldn't make it up", but that would be quite wrong. You could make it up, and in a flash.
In an age where public image is everything, why wouldn't Allardyce enlist the support of someone whose vast commercial influence and celebrity is considered so hugely important in the Football Association's Soho Square offices? Said "Big" Sam: "I wanted to know whether I would have his and the other players' support if I was successful because he still has a major role to play in England's future." Shame then on all who believed Sven could never be challenged as Beckenham Palace's ultimate lap-dog.
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