The other evening we were talking - some grizzled members of the sports following fraternity - about football in the three decades that followed on from the Second World War. I beg no youngster to groan and say, "Yes, we've heard it all before" - a parade of outstanding players who never earned enough to provide for retirement, how the game was comparatively trouble-free and defeat, however hurtful, mattered less than quality of entertainment.
This wasn't our theme. We were talking mainly about a defunct role, that of the crowd-puller, players whose very presence gave attendances a mighty lift when it was still possible to pay at the gate for admission. A number of names sprang to mind but none more obviously than Stanley Matthews, a winger of unquestionable genius who carried on packing them in until he quit in his 51st year.
A big difference, of course, is that before television thrust football into every home glimpses of such men were rare, their reputations fostered solely by newspaper coverage, radio commentary and cinema newsreels. As Matthews' career drew on, his fame embellished by a dramatic contribution to Blackpool's 4-3 defeat of Bolton Wanderers in the 1953 FA Cup final, people flocked to watch him on the sad assumption that it might be for the last time.
Among others who fell into the Matthews category was the Newcastle and Sunderland trickster Len Shackleton, the self-styled "Clown Prince of Soccer", whose touch was all the more remarkable since it was applied to a heavy leather ball and in footwear more suited to an allotment than a football pitch. One of our ageing group recalled lining up as a boy to watch Shackleton in the sure and certain belief that it would be an uplifting experience. Later on, something similar could have been said about George Best, Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and the galactic nucleus of Tottenham Hotspur's 1961 Double-winners.
Staying with the theme of football as entertainment over and above the earnest desire for victory, when Tottenham completed the Double by overcoming Leicester City in the 1961 FA Cup final, their manager, Bill Nicholson, was deeply disappointed with the performance. "I'm sure that our supporters are satisfied, but we didn't live up to the standards we've set ourselves," I recall him grumbling.
In the early Sixties, a pretty miserable period in Arsenal's history, one of the few shining lights was George Eastham, whose unfortunate fate was to be picked for two England World Cup squads without getting a game. An Arsenal season ticket holder of the time bluntly stated that he was prepared to put up with the dross as long as Eastham was in the team.
That was just one of the reminiscences which threw our little group back to an era when crowd-pullers were important to football's well-being through a pronounced effect on the box office. If a similar impact was necessary today, which players could fulfil the role?
Most Premiership teams are made up mainly of men selected more for athletic prowess and eager conformation to the team ethic than any perceptible gifts of imagination and technical ability. Consistency of effort is prized above star status, leading to games that do nothing for neutrals.
However, it is still possible to identify players who rise above the wearisome emphasis on team systems, largely irrelevant statistics and the importance of victory no matter how it is achieved. Anybody with a feel for pure class cannot fail to be excited by the sight of Thierry Henry, a crowd-puller by any standards. Because of his enormous potential Wayne Rooney, at just 18, falls into that category. But very little today is kept from us.
This week, on Sky and ITV, it has been possible to observe, in some form or other, every game in the Champions' League, a service that provides us with an opportunity assess the form of leading players from the comfort of an armchair. The players of Real Madrid, Milan and Juventus are now as familiar as those of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United. The path of David Beckham's career remains as clear to us as it was before he joined Real Madrid.
The days when the reputation of a footballer whipped up people to say "This we have to see", no matter what the inconvenience, have long gone, and with them a healthy appreciation of rare opportunity.
Going back further than I find it comfortable to remember, a personal favourite was Jimmy Logie, a Scottish international who masterminded Arsenal's attacks in the Fifties and later became a friend. Alert, nimble and creative, Logie was the embodiment of an inside-forward's craft. If not a crowd-puller in the fullest sense, he was an education. I never passed up a chance to watch him play.Reuse content