Brian Viner: Greatness thrust upon two of Ireland's football giants

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The Independent Online

The title of a football book published last week might raise the odd eyebrow. It is called 'Charlie Hurley – The Greatest Centre Half The World Has Ever Seen' and there will be those who might justifiably wonder why, if Hurley is the finest there has ever been on this planet, they have never heard of him. It won't strike anyone at the Stadium of Light as hyperbole, however. Hurley (right) – Irish-born, Essex-raised but Wearside-worshipped – was a colossus in the Sunderland defence between 1957 and 1969, and also played for the Republic of Ireland for 12 years. Moreover, not only was he voted Sunderland's greatest-ever player decades after he had left the club, but he was also accorded the same accolade by the fans of Millwall, where he excelled for four years before heading north.

I never saw him play, but a generation ago I played in a Sunday league team with a devoted Sunderland fan whose father's proudest boast was that Charlie Hurley's dog had once mated with his bitch. Hurley was by all accounts a similar player to another uncompromising defender who graced the green shirt of Ireland for 12 years, Paul McGrath. And there is a further similarity. McGrath's superb autobiography, Back From The Brink, is sub-titled 'The Story of Ireland's Greatest Ever Footballer', and when I asked him a couple of years ago whether he concurred with this description, he said, "God, no. I didn't see it until the book was finished, and then I thought 'why did they have to put in something like that?' If I was a Roy Keane, a Liam Brady, a Johnny Giles, a Ronnie Whelan, I'd have been insulted." Hurley, now a robust 72-year-old, and happy as he was to have his life story written, apparently felt the same about being called the greatest of all centre-halves. Authors and publishers care little about the modest sensibilities of their subjects when it comes to getting books noticed.

Cricket's little masters remain a stylish cut above their peers

It is surely no coincidence that the two greatest batsmen in the world, Ricky Ponting and Sachin Tendulkar, currently pitting their considerable wits against one another in Bangalore, are both somewhat on the diminutive side, the latter scarcely bigger than a garden gnome. I have a pet theory about extremely successful self-made men, which is that a disproportionate number of them are or were either very large or very small, the big ones (Robert Maxwell) relying on their ability to dominate a room physically, the little ones (Bernie Ecclestone) going through life compensating for their stature. There is an unusual number of very big and very small men, too, in the pantheon of great batsmen. But it is the diddy men who dominate. Consider the list of top Test century-makers: Tendulkar leads, followed by Ponting, Sunil Gavaskar and Brian Lara, not one of them able to look Kevin Pietersen or Graeme Smith, say, even in the chin. Now consider the Test batting averages, in which Don Bradman, a decidedly compact fellow, stands supreme. If there is anything at all in the concept of 'a low centre of gravity', then these wonderful cricketers show what an asset it is at the crease.

Capello might remember how Ramsey found right formula

In the world of mathematics, the greatest kudos goes to those who solve the problems everyone else found intractable. Today at Wembley we will see whether Fabio Capello is football's answer to Andrew Wiles, the maths professor at Princeton University who in 1995 cracked a conjecture, known as 'Fermat's Last Theorem', that had baffled mathematicians for more than 350 years. Professor Wiles had to show that every semistable elliptic curve is modular; Capello has to get Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard playing well together.

There are other quandaries in football, analogous, perhaps, with lesser mathematical challenges. How to get Alan Shearer to say anything remotely insightful, for example, could be considered comparable with the Slothouber-Graatsma puzzle. But it is the Lampard-Gerrard puzzle that has exercised the minds of many illustrious football people, including that of Jimmy Greaves, who said on the radio he couldn't imagine why any England manager would overlook his best players. The presenter was not brave enough to remind him that Alf Ramsey long ago put paid to that theory, telling England's finest goalscorer that he would sit out the World Cup final, and duly lifting the trophy.

It is hard for Greavsie, of all people, to accept that the best team does not necessarily comprise the best players. Yet I hope Capello doesn't lose sight of Ramsey's conjecture that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.