Golden era when goals measured managers’ skill

On me ‘ead son! ANTON RIPPON reminisces for a simpler approach to football tactics and analysis

Football’s a simple game: 17 laws, 11 players in a team and a simple objective – to score more goals than the other lot.

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

True, you can argue that every one of those laws contains directions as to how it should be interpreted, and that substitutes are allowed these days so it’s no longer just about the players who started the game.

But football is still a simple sport. Or at least it used to be before managers and coaches started making notes. I’ve often wondered what they do with their players all week when, come match day, they find it necessary to draw diagrams for footballers with whom mostly they share a native tongue.

And then there is this continual touchline coaching. Earlier this season at Pride Park (this was before we had to call it the iPro Stadium), Sean Dyche, Burnley’s manager, was never off his feet. I doubt more than a minute elapsed without him waving and shouting at his players. To the uninitiated, the hand and arm signals were mostly mystifying. When they were obvious, the adjustment appeared minute; a bit like moving second slip back six inches.

Burnley thumped Derby 3-0 that day and are now eight points clear of the third-placed Rams with only four games remaining – so I guess that Dyche’s response, always assuming that he felt he needed to make one, would be to point out the league table.

But can you imagine Brian Clough using a flipchart to show players where to stand and what to do? Cloughie – as far as I’m concerned still the greatest manager of his or any other era – simply took those 11 players, gave each one a precise job to do based entirely on their individual skills, and expected them to get on with doing exactly what he paid them for.

Cloughie didn’t ask Alan Hinton to start “tackling back”. Indeed, in the unlikely event that Derby’s creator-in-chief (as the late Gerald Mortimer, who covered the Rams for the Derby Evening Telegraph in that era, dubbed him) had ever shown an inclination to help out the defence, his manager would have been hopping mad.

Dai Astley: from an era when centre forwards scored lots of goals
Dai Astley: from an era when centre forwards scored lots of goals

From an earlier era, for BBC Radio Derby I once interviewed Dai Astley, who came to the Baseball Ground from Aston Villa in November 1936. Few players can have made such an early impact at a new club. In his first 30 appearances for the Rams, Astley, a Wales international centre-forward, scored 29 goals, including three hat-tricks.

“If I’m honest,” he said, “it was easy. Football is a simple game, and at Derby we had players who did the simple things well.

“We had two great wingers in Sammy Crooks and Dally Duncan.

“I could just stand in the middle and head them in. Sammy or Dally often used to say: ‘You want ’em in the middle? You’ll have ’em in the middle. You stay there and I’ll do the work.’ And that was it. Simple wasn’t it?”

Of course, this was in the days when Sunderland manager, Johnny Cochrane, a little man in a bowler hat, used to stick his head around the Roker Park dressing room door at 10 to three, breath whisky fumes over everyone, and ask skipper Raich Carter: “Who are we playing today?”

And when Raich said: “Arsenal, boss,” Cochrane would reply: Oh, we’ll piss that lot!” before disappearing back to the boardroom.

Sunderland won the League that year. They had the best team. Simple.

My old schoolpal, Subrata Dasgupta, now a professor at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, has some interesting things to say about tactics. Of course, he has to rely on American broadcasters for his regular fix of “soccer”, as we must call the game when referring to how it is described in one of our former colonies.

“This year NBC Sports broadcasts all the Premier League matches, while Fox Sports shows the European Champions’ League and the FA Cup games. The Premier League matches are preceded by a fairly extensive segment of analysis hosted by Rebecca Lowe with a bunch of ex-footballers including Robbie Earle. The Fox Sports pre-match presentations have, on their panels, Warren Barton, Brian McBride, and others.

“Generally, I enjoy these programmes. But what strikes me again and again is the discussion of tactics and related aspects of the games, both before and after the matches. And it occurred to me the other day that these aspects of football have advanced so dramatically over the past 50 years or so.

“I recall an anecdote related by Stanley Matthews about his Blackpool manager Joe Smith, the sum of whose  pre-match team talk was to tell his team to ‘go and score a couple of goals’ before half-time so that he could enjoy his cigar thereafter.”

The game certainly seemed much less complicated in those pre-flipchart days, and Subrata wonders: “Where did all these tactical, psychological, “theoretical” points of view come from?”

He asks: “To what extent did other sports influence football? How did ideas spread from one country to another? As a very small point it seems fairly common for teams to go into a ‘huddle’ before a match starts. This is very common in American team sports, especially basketball and American football. But was this – purely psychological – tactic imported from the States?”

While we work that one out, here’s one for the thinking-man’s football coach. My pal is currently working on a problem that, as a computer scientist and an intellectual historian, has long perplexed him: the relationship between data, information and knowledge.

Apparently, so Subrata tells me, TS Eliot asked: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

And here’s me thinking it was just a simple choice between the Diamond and the Christmas Tree. I still marvel that we ever went to the same school.


Thu May 15: SJA members’ Race Day at York