The pundit's view: Mullery loves the game - football, not monopoly

But without having become anything like a grumpy old man, even the great enthusiast can see the downside of a one-horse Premiership race and a proliferation of 4-5-1 formations. As a match-day host for Fulham and a pundit for Sky Sports, in that curiously hypnotic Saturday afternoon programme in which viewers watch old pros watching television, he sees more games than most - to his wife's frequently expressed displeasure. So is he bored, or enchanted? The answer is somewhere between the two.

"First day of the season I saw Fulham against Birmingham [0-0] and that was boring, very boring. Their second game was against Everton [1-0] and Everton were very poor. Then last week I saw Fulham play West Ham [1-2] and it was an absolutely magnificent football match, superb, with good saves, goals and the crowd enjoying it."

That Craven Cottage crowd had made their displeasure known last season, however, at a time when 4-5-1 was becoming all the rage: "Chris Coleman played one up front and the crowd were chanting '4-4-2, 4-4-2'. They were getting bored. In the end Fulham changed it and won three of the last four games, scoring lots of goals. You can only play 4-5-1 with certain players. Chelsea can because they've got such quality in the wide positions, players who can beat people. But a lot of teams play that way just pushing five players into the midfield, and their wide men don't take on the full-backs."

Keeping up with the neighbours is now more of a problem for Fulham than any other club as Chelsea threaten to turn the Premiership into a procession. In Mullery's first seven years as a professional, from 1959-65, the old First Division was won by a different club each time, including small-town teams like Burnley and Ipswich. In the next seven seasons, the same thing happened, and for most of his career, he says: "There were eight teams who could win the title and you didn't know which it would be. Even after that, with the great Liverpool teams of the Seventies and Eighties and then Manchester United, you thought they could be beaten.

"Look at the interest in Scotland, where Hearts are suddenly on top of Celtic and Rangers. I've just heard George Burley interviewed on the radio and when did you last hear that, the Hearts manager on the radio down here? With Chelsea, it could certainly get boring, and the League could be over by Christmas. They're on another planet."

Bringing them down to earth is a different matter, and Mullery does not believe that the salary cap proposed by Wigan's chairman, Dave Whelan, will do the job, partly because of the handicap to English teams competing in Europe ("like a few years back, when we could only have four non-English players"), and partly because of European labour laws. "I don't know Dave Whelan at all, though he's a very successful businessman, but I don't think it will happen. The only thing that might do it is if a club actually goes bankrupt, and makes the others think."

As a member of the original squad of 40 for the 1966 World Cup, and a regular in the unsuccessful campaign in the heat of Mexico four years later (he scored in the memorable 3-2 quarter-final defeat by Germany), Mullery is a firm believer in domestic football being influenced one way or another by the fortunes of the national team. Studying England at present, he sees high-class players but is unconvinced by the manager, Sven Goran Eriksson.

"We saw in '66 that the whole nation was inspired, and everyone wanted to go to football the following season [when attendances increased by 1.7million]. We have as many talented individual players as I've seen for a long time, in every position. Ashley Cole is as good a left-back as there is in the world probably, and we've an abundance of central defenders, and two of the best midfielders in the world in Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, even if they've not quite clicked together.

"David Beckham is still one of the best crossers anywhere, and up front Michael Owen will score goals at any level and Wayne Rooney is the most talented footballer since Gazza. But I did say individual players. As a team we haven't seen the best of them. What bothered me most was when the manager decided to use 4-5-1 in a competitive game, against Wales. If we're having all these friendlies, why not try it then?"

Despite all the quibbles, he is still clearly in love with the game, only recently taking up an appointment as consultant to Crawley Town and becoming involved in a campaign to get a posthumous knighthood for his old Tottenham manager Bill Nicholson. "For as long as I can physically get there, I'll always go and see a live match. As for television, I can see that when you look at the amount there is on, there will be people saturated with it, but I absolutely love it.

"For anyone like me, it's seventh heaven. I'll sit and watch it every night and get a rollocking from my wife, who'll be in the other room. Now I've heard you're going to be able to watch football on your mobile phone. Even I'm not going to be doing that ... she'd hit me over the head with it."

There are limits, after all. But he will head for White Hart Lane and tomorrow night's meeting of his two former clubs with hope in his heart and a spring in his sexagenarian step, believing there is life in the old game yet.

Comments