Ken Jones: When crowd-pullers were crucial to health of the game

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The Independent Football

At Highbury on Tuesday evening, shortly before the Champions' League match between Arsenal and Panathinaikos got under way, 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" - about a parade of outstanding players who never earned enough to provide for comfortable retirement, how the game was comparatively scandal-free, and how defeat, however hurtful, mattered less than quality of entertainment.

At Highbury on Tuesday evening, shortly before the Champions' League match between Arsenal and Panathinaikos got under way, 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" - about a parade of outstanding players who never earned enough to provide for comfortable retirement, how the game was comparatively scandal-free, and how 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 quickened the pulse and 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 put football into every home, glimpses of such men were rare, their reputations fostered 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 see him play on the sad assumption that it might be for the last time.

Among others who fell into the Matthews category were Tom Finney and 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 play in the sure and certain belief that it would be an uplifting experience. A recent biography of Shackleton*, diligently researched and entertainingly written by Colin Malam, cites many examples of Shackleton's wizardry and rebellious nature, the latter restricting him to five England caps.

Shackleton, who left the game without a club honour to his name, was pure box office. Later on, something similar could have been said about Duncan Edwards, George Best, Bobby Charlton, Denis Law, Jimmy Greaves and the galactic nucleus of Tottenham Hotspur's 1961 Double-winners: Danny Blanchflower, Dave Mackay, John White and Cliff Jones.

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 selected for two England World Cup squads without making an appearance. When Eastham was sold to Stoke City in 1966 an Arsenal fan of my acquaintance turned in his season ticket.

That was just one of the reminiscences that threw older members of our group back to an era when crowd-pullers were important to football's well-being through a pronounced effect on attendances.

If a similar impact was necessary today, which players could fill the role? Most Premiership teams are made up mainly of men chosen as much for athletic prowess and willing conformation to the team ethic than any gifts of imagination and technical expertise.

However, it is still possible to identify players who rise above the emphasis on systems. Anybody with a feel for class cannot fail to be excited by Thierry Henry, a crowd-puller by any standards. Because of their enormous potential, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, while still teenagers, fall into that category, along with graduates from Arsenal's nursery.

But very little today is kept from us. This week, on Sky and ITV, it has been possible to observe, in some form or another, every game in the Champions' League, providing viewers with a chance to assess the form of leading players. The players of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Milan and Juventus are now as familiar to us as those of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United. The career paths of David Beckham and Michael Owen remain as clear to us as they were before they 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.

A personal favourite was Jimmy Logie, a Scottish international who masterminded Arsenal's attacks in the Fifties, when they won two FA Cups and a League Championship. 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.

* Clown Prince of Soccer? The Len Shackleton Story. By Colin Malam (Highdown, £18.99)

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