Ken Jones: Legacy of street football unites legends and hopefuls

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The Independent Football

One thing about football upon which initiates are in agreement is that it used to be better. The exact period at which it used to be better, however, varies in direct ratio with the age of the fellow telling about it. If he was a footballer, it always turns out to be the time when he was playing, and if a football writer, the years before he began to get bored with what he was doing.

Earlier this week, at the funeral of John Charles in Leeds, a deeply moving occasion that did justice to his prowess and endearing humility, it crossed my mind, and maybe the minds of many others, that no British player stands above him or is more worthy of a place among the top 10 of all time.

Death denied Charles prominent inclusion in a list of the game's greatest living players, selected by Pele, that Fifa will announce today as a feature of its centenary celebrations. But for many years he has figured in a personal assembly of irrefutably world-class practitioners of the game that includes, in no precise order: Pele, Alfredo di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Diego Maradona, George Best, Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, Garrincha and Sir Stanley Matthews.

Looking at their names, and those of many others who come close, it strikes me that their natural aptitude for the most popular of ball games first came to light in the chaos of street or wasteland football, playing in pick-up matches that quickly developed their touch and initiative.

At an international conference last year, coaches concerned themselves with the alarming fact that very few boys meet the standards required by professional clubs, which in this country is one of the responsibilities that Trevor Brooking has taken on for the Football Association.

Brooking, whose appointment was clumsily questioned by the League Managers Association on the tenuous grounds that he did not at the time possess sufficient qualifications, was at Highbury on Monday night when Arsenal hosted a presentation by John Cartwright that emphasised the importance of learning to play in confined spaces: in effect an attempt to recreate the experience common to the heroes mentioned above.

For many years Cartwright, 63, a former West Ham player who once had charge of the old School of Excellence at Lilleshall, and raised seven members of an outstanding Crystal Palace youth team to senior level in the late 1970s, has long been an isolated voice in the tangled wilderness of misguided practices and theories evident in the need to flood British football with foreign imports. "If you think about it, we have only produced a handful of outstanding players from those who take up the game and progress to professional level," he said when he spoke this week.

It remains to be seen if Cartwright's system, one he is building up commercially, will be taken fully on board by the FA, but it is clear from the performances of players blooded at junior international level that there is a serious gap in education, that natural instincts are being stifled.

The bleak state of Scottish football, the predominance of overseas players in the teams of Celtic and Rangers, can be traced to failures in finding a productive alternative to the natural cultivation of such talents as Denis Law, Jim Baxter, Dave Mackay, John White, Kenny Dalglish, Billy Bremner, Ian St John and Graeme Souness.

In his quest for that alternative in English football, Cartwright incorporates the lessons of his youth. "We didn't need a proper pitch, goalposts, kit, people to coach us," he said. "We threw down coats, played chaotic football in our street shoes, sharpening ball control and decision-making.

"All the greats will have known that experience, Matthews on the streets of Stoke, Pele growing up on the dusty roads of a railway junction in Brazil, Maradona in a deprived area of Buenos Aires. In this country, street football has long since disappeared. In its place we have a system that simply doesn't work well enough."

Brooking told Cartwright that he was no more technically proficient at the peak of his career than he was when a recruit to West Ham's youth system. "That gets right to it," Cartwright said. "Paul Gascoigne, who is probably the most gifted English footballer of the past 20 years, was deaf to hindering influences. He was a free spirit. Of course, the danger in encouraging individuality is that youngsters can become self-indulgent, what the Scots used to call 'tanner ball players'. What we are trying to do is foster skill then channel it into team effort, not the other way around."

Along with a number of highly talented contemporaries who emerged from Swansea 50 years ago, Charles learned his football in primitive conditions. No more symbolic site could be found for the scattering of his ashes than the small park where a stupendous career began.