Sport: The fate of flair power

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The Independent Online
OUT OF a touching belief in old values, it has often been the purpose here to exhort the football brass to renounce methods that deny the audience artistry and style.

In this I have endeavoured to keep a clear head, making due allowance for difficulties imposed by improved athleticism, the stupidity of law makers who appear convinced that football is best played at a speed beyond the motorway maximum, and the place commitment has always held in the game.

Interestingly then, the programme BBC Radio 5 are putting out at 8.30 on Monday evenings presents a knotty problem for anyone who believes that football in this country is not remotely as appealing as it used to be.

The task to which the presenter, Pat Murphy, skilfully applies himself amounts to something of a lament for great entertainers from another less urgent time, whose gifts nevertheless were consistently ignored when it came to selecting the England team. As pointed out by my colleague, Henry Winter, in the Football Diary last week, Peter Osgood, Rodney Marsh, Stan Bowles, Frank Worthington, Tony Currie, Charlie George and Alan Hudson gained fewer than 50 caps between them.

With the benefit of a reasonable memory, research into this mystery has been undertaken, and the results are presented here as a public service.

To begin with, and this is irrefutable, all the players referred to not only came under close scrutiny when Sir Alf Ramsey managed the England team, but were given opportunities to establish themselves at international level. One or two, Hudson being the saddest example, suffered mentally debilitating injuries at a crucial stage of their careers. Others simply didn't have the necessary temperament.

On the face of it, especially the evidence of a memorable performance against West Germany at Wembley in 1975 under Don Revie's stewardship, you might suppose that nothing is more scandalous in the history of English football, and more damning of Ramsey than Hudson's rejection.

The truth, and I don't recall it being let out before, is that Hudson made such an impression on Ramsey when a teenager at Chelsea that he was provisionally selected for the 1970 World Cup squad. 'He has the potential to be one of England's greatest footballers,' I remember Ramsey saying.

Instead, Hudson was left behind to nurse an ankle injury that prevented him from turning out for Chelsea in the FA Cup final, and he probably never fully recovered from those disappointments. Falling prey to outside influences, his game afterwards seldom contained the penetrating verve Ramsey had found so exciting.

George, a marvellous striker of the ball who revealed extraordinary vision when introduced by Arsenal, paid little or no account to the honour of playing for England. 'It never really interested me,' he insists to this day. Perhaps significantly, George's only senior international appearance came when turning out at Derby for Dave Mackay, one of the few people in football to gain his respect.

Stan Bowles (five caps), hugely talented but incorrigibly wayward, made his international debut against Portugal in Lisbon when Ramsey's reign was drawing to a close. The attendance had been greatly reduced by miserable weather, and, with the rain still slanting down, Bowles prefaced his arrival with the remark: 'Half an hour will do me out there.' Unfortunately for Bowles's many admirers, that was typical of him.

Osgood won the second of his four caps as a substitute when England played Romania in the 1970 World Cup finals. 'Where does Alf want you to play?' Osgood was urgently asked. He conveyed the impression of being equally interested in qualifying for an appearance fee from Adidas. There was much to admire in Osgood's languid style, and defenders spoke darkly about his mean streak, but he was never the most reliable.

Much the same can be said of Frank Worthington, who might have made a much bigger impact had he not failed a medical when about to come under the immense influence that was exerted on the field by many of the players Revie sent out at Leeds.

Currie (17 caps) and Marsh (nine), both enormously gifted footballers, performed importantly for England, but consistency was not their strongest point.

A yardstick in all this is that the great Alfredo di Stefano, of Real Madrid, rapidly went into decline when no longer able to sustain the energetic purpose that was central to his powers.

There is also the vivid memory of Pele in one of his last games for Santos. At 33, he retained the enthusiasm of his youth, the greatest player in history still performing with the conviction that you only get out of the game what you put into it.