They never fail to convey the impression that football is an art so involved as to be removed from ordinary understanding

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The Independent Online
An American friend, a man of rare perception at ringsides and in racing press boxes but of no great patience, never ventures forth on New Year's Eve for fear that he will be pestered by inebriated sporadic drinkers. He refers to them as amateurs. When applied to watchers of sport, the term raises similar thoughts personally. Since no authority has ever been claimed here, I have a problem with people who pose as experts.

This includes those who cannot be budged from the view that boxing is fixed, bar-room tacticians, critics who should stick to their own fields of journalism, editors of fanzines and authors of what is known as the new football writing.

All are recommended to the words of a hard-nosed Canadian, Joe Peters, who employed me briefly as a consultant more than 30 years ago after gaining control of the Toronto Falcons in the North American Soccer League. From his experiences as a deck-hand, lumberjack, lake- hopping pilot and card sharp, Peters was deeply suspicious of anyone who professed superior knowledge. "Don't talk to me about experts," he would say. "Ex is something in the past and a spurt is a spray that didn't make it."

I creep into the issue at this point only because I possess some rather dog-eared but still unexpired credentials. They are that I have been around sport for longer than it is comfortable to remember; that old playing wounds ache at this stage of the year; that in time I came to respect and follow diligently the advice of an old professional which was to observe with my ears as well as my eyes. "The more you listen, the more you are likely to learn," he said.

In acknowledging a debt to him, it must be said that he was unshakably of the opinion that no hope could be held out for footballers whose principal asset was willingness. Applying himself to a vigorous exposition of that premise, he was fond of saying: "If you are spoken of as a ball artist, a schemer or a goalscorer there is a chance, but triers might as well go off and dig roads."

As it appears that there are plenty of navvies earning a good living from football, the term is offered for use by people, writers among them, who never fail to convey the impression that it is an art so involved and technical as to be removed from ordinary knowledge and understanding. In their eagerness to pose as experts they fill the air with fashionable theories and jargon, ignoring an unassailable truth, which is that sport is best served by uncomplicated conclusions.

Of course, strategic developments have played havoc with the language of football, but a case can still be made for the positional clarity that existed when education could be improved in the company of such notable mentors as Jock Stein, Alf Ramsey, Bill Nicholson, Matt Busby and Bill Shankly.

Today we have playmakers - all too few of them - anchor men, strikers, sweepers, wide players, wing backs and forwards who play "in the hole". According to contemporary literature, England are still flirting with the Christmas tree formation.

In the language of television commentators, to have a poor defence is to be weak at the back, and when every player gives of his best a team is "totally committed". Corners and free-kicks have long since become dead-ball situations, and forwards who run intelligently into space are said to be probing the gullies.

There could be no legitimate objection to any of this if it was confined to professionals. The trouble is that it has been taken up in general conversation. At an age when they should be eager to impersonate heroes, boys hear about closing down, pushing up and pressing on the ball. Thus they are denied an innocent introduction to football.

With the European Championship finals coming up next summer, we can prepare for further bewildering analysis. Not so much the players but how they will be deployed by their coaches. Not so much individual brilliance, the flair evident in great players, but strategy and tactics. With the end of another year almost upon us, there is at the back of my mind a troublesome thought. It is of an age in sport when everybody speaks and nobody listens.