Saturday, 4 August 2012

Sport: a few thoughts ...

In my younger days I played hockey to a decent standard, county hockey for Cornwall and the West of England but could never get good enough to operate within the couple of inches of space the international game required. Fitness and inherent skill can only take you so far. I tried coaching but was a disaster because I could carry out ball skills but not explain how I did them. To me they were 'instinctive', born of hours of practice, normal even: so why could everyone else not simply see and do.

My secret Olympic pleasure has been to watch wall to wall hockey live or catch up with the games and goals I missed on iplayer when I came back to the house. I have listen with much pain to the BBC comentary from Barry Davis who shows his datedness and ignorance with every word he utters. On good days the matches have been covered by the commentary teams from either New Zealand or Australia; better still some matches have had no commentary at all. Here's the weird thing, unlike football or rugby, most of the international players actually play in the country they are selected to play for. There are a few who play for teams in Spain, Germany or Holland that are to all intents and purposes 'professional' in the way rugby was. Phillips in den Helge give you a 'job' so you can play for their sponsored team. It is now the same for the top level of teams playing in the English premier divisions. It is the only way you can play at the pace the modern game requires over 70 minutes by training full time, in an organised manner. In my day I was given a list of exercises by the West of England coaching staff and expected to 'do it myself'. There was no dietary advice or control nor focussed physiotherapy to ensure you exercised areas of muscle or skeletal weakness appropriately. You were timed and next get together if you did not match or improve your time comments were made as to your future squad involvement.

For all these improvements in the last 25 years or so I find the idea that modern 'tactics' are the reason for the game's improvement. I have watched defenders and defensive midfielders slinging the ball back and forwards, up and down the pitch going nowhere very fast while they wait for a 'space' to appear yet time after time attacks only develop when an attacker comes short picks up the ball and drives forward using stick skills, short passing and guile no different from 30 years ago. Most goals are still created by players driving or passing through either the wing or old fashioned inside left or right channels. The game is now played on a billiard table pitch (less excuse for poor ball control), with even better sticks on a slightly faster surface but the reality is it takes the same skills to put the ball in the net as it did 30 years ago. So while everything has 'changed' the reality is, at the core, nothing actually has.

I then turned to football - do you know, for all the gobble-de-gook about 1-7-3, 4-5-1 and the rest, football is the same. It takes the same skills to put the ball in the net as it did 30 years ago. Ultimately it is a player breaking forward in either wing or old fashioned inside channels that does the damage. The difference is in football as opposed to hockey, for me, is you no no longer have the same numbers of players with the 'on the ball' skills of 30 years ago. It is why a Messi or a Rooney or a Bale seems so extraordinary. In the 60's in Scottish football all the sides had three or four players who would give Messi a run for his money on ball control - Jimmy Johnston, Willie Johnston, Jim Baxter, Willie Henderson, George Flemming, Jim Townsend, Pat Stanton  - in the 70's the likes of Dalgliesh, Bremner, Robertson, Gemmil and many, many more. Today all those players would be 'superstars', feted by all the top teams in Europe. In the 60's and 70's they were simply the norm in Scottish football.

Here's the question - what is the fundamental difference between now and then?

For football in Scotland I would suggest it is the influx of second rate overseas professionals, over the last ten years especially, asking silly wages and who have added little to the game overall. There are a few clear exceptions, two who come to mind in the last decade are Butcher at Rangers and Skatchel at Hearts but all in all how many have become 'names' in the sides they sucked the fiscal life out of?

The impact of these overseas players and their inflated demands has been to reduce the numbers of Scots youngsters coming through to the top level. This in turn demoralises our best youngsters and combined with what they see as 'easy money' being offered the overseas players further effects their desire and ambition to improve. If you can be paid £40,000 a year to play in a second team ..... take the money and run. The impact on the ever reducing core and advanced skills in our national football side are clear to see. It is nothing to with 'pride' and everything to do with lack of ambition - and yes the two ideas are compatible. I can feel pride pulling on a shirt for my country, I can put total effort into my play but without the ambition to learn and improve my skills I am going backwards, I am simply a journeyman. Clocking on and turning up to training is not enough - it is the personal hours of practice that make the difference. For me it was spending an hour everyday simply hitting a hockey ball against a wall and controlling it on back and front stick until I appeared not to have to think about this basic skill. The really great players of every generation in football understand this - if you do not have complete control over the simple skills, you have no control full stop.

Maybe the bankruptcy of Ranger's and the adverse impact on Scottish Football's finances the likes of Doncaster and Reagan bewail, will be a good thing. It already seems clear that most SPL clubs have had a serious clear out of the overseas deadwood, with few coming the opposite direction. Hearts are making much of their introduction of young players to their first team squad which while being essential for their long term finances may turn out to be the opportunity to bring on the modern Baxters, Dalgliesh's and Bremners who are out there but have been stifled by short term, buy-in, search for glory and robotic tactics. If you do not have the players with the skills and ball control to attack through the wing and inside channels you are stuffed - that is why even the current Barca side are reliant on a 'Messi' when things get tough.

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