Appliance of science is bending the ball game

ANTON RIPPON wonders whether Gareth Bale’s goal-scoring could have been possible without the backing of a finance officer, CEO or club nutritionist

We were talking, down the pub the other day, about those brilliant goals from Gareth Bale.

His brace in the St Valentine’s Day Europa League special between Spurs and Olympique Lyonnais stand out still. As do several other rip-snorters from the Welshman in recent seasons.

Gareth Bale: goals that seem to defy science are the talk of pubs across the land
Gareth Bale: goals that seem to defy science are the talk of pubs across the land

Not that we will forget, either, the stunning effort from Olympique’s Samuel Umtiti in that same match. Nor, indeed, quite a few others that have flown in from various players who, in the 21st century, seem capable taking a football and defying the laws of aerodynamics.

Free-kicks and open-play shots from outside the box that have dipped, swerved and confounded the best goalkeepers in the land – viewed from various angles thanks to television’s all-seeing eyes, it’s all been quite remarkable.

Those Bale goals, though, really were special. As one commentator remarked, it was almost as though, once the ball has cleared the defensive wall, it deflated and dipped. How does he do that?

Anyway, there we were, in the four-ale bar, when someone – it might have been me – said: “Ah, but I’d like to see him try it with a waterlogged Tomlinson ‘T’ ball while wearing a pair of Co-op boots – the ones with those big bulbous toe-caps – and playing on six inches of Baseball Ground mud.”

That’s the trouble, you see. So much has altered in this game of football since old codgers like me were drawn it as children. So we can easily slip into “in-my-day” mode. Which is flawed because it’s arguable whether the game is better or worse than the one on which we became hooked

It’s certainly different. Thanks to the ball, boots and playing surfaces, if you can get past shirt-tugging, wrestling in the penalty area and those leaps of fake, then it’s probably a better spectacle than it was 50 years ago.

There are other changes, not least the number of people involved in running a football club. Thanks to the business that football has become, the increase in off-field staff is quite remarkable.

For the last 60 years, whenever I could I’ve watched Derby County. No apologies for that. I happen to think that you should support your hometown club. That’s why, for instance, SJA member and veteran sportswriter James Mossop, who’s seen more big games than most, still looks first for Barrow’s result every Saturday.

Anyway, my point is that when the Rams entertained the likes of Barrow in the Third Division North, back in the mists of football’s time, the Derby club operated well enough with one manager, Harry Storer, two trainers, Ralph Hann and Jack Bowers, a secretary, Cyril Annable, and his assistant, Alec Miller. That was it. On a weekday, Annable and Miller were the only souls in the Baseball Ground, and I’m not sure that they could always fill their time.

A few turnstile operators turned up on Saturdays when a couple of bobbies kept their eyes on 20,000 people. Oh, and there was the man in the brown raincoat (he wore that whatever the weather) who came out with the half-time scores, painted on tin sheets which he hung on a wooden frame. Stewards? They enquired into horse racing didn’t they?

Brian Clough: what would he have made of a COO or a fitness coach?
Brian Clough: what would he have made of a Chief Operating Officer or a fitness coach?

There were no chief operating officers, directors of football, heads of performance analysis and sports science, or even goalkeeping coaches when my Martin McDonnell was kicking Mossop’s Ronnie Codd up in the air in the 1950s.

It was much the same picture 20 years later, when Brian Clough and Peter Taylor were working their magic in the East Midlands. The same would have applied to every other Football League club of the era and well beyond.

Now every club employs a whole army of staff, many with highfalutin titles. I don’t know that the game is any better for it.

And it’s not just in the Premier League or the Football League. Eastleigh FC (an example snatched at random via Google) of the Blue Square Bet South boasts a chief operations officer, a site operations manager, an administration manager, and umpteen other officials although, to be fair, they do seem to be short of a goalkeeping coach.

Anyway, back to Gareth Bale and his magic touch with a football. Perhaps some enterprising television station can kit him out with a pair of Stanley Matthews CWS boots, give him a leather cannonball, stand him in a muddy field and ask him to bamboozle, say, Joe Hart (who will wear a polo-neck sweater with darns, a pair of rain-sodden woollen gloves and a “ratting cap”, as we say up in Derbyshire; I have one he can borrow).

That’s not to minimise Bale’s skills. You can only play in the era you’re in. But, in the interests of science, wouldn’t it be an interesting experiment?


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