Peter the Great never had grounds for complaint

“If you can play, you can play”: ANTON RIPPON reckons Arsene Wenger has pitched a recent whinge wrong

So, the muddy old Baseball Ground pitch isn’t forgotten. At least not by my friend, Norman Giller.

Norm recalled the day that Kenny Dalglish ploughed his way through the mud when playing for Scotland under-23s at Derby in 1972.

I was there, too, and remember Norman’s imposing presence in the press room. He won’t remember me, though. Norm was a national figure, far too important to be bothered with a provincial hack. But he struck me as a nice bloke. Years later, that impression turned out to be have been accurate.

I always look forward to Norm’s words on the SJA website, but this week’s contribution struck a particular chord. It made me think back to a game at Old Trafford, just before Christmas.

You’ll remember the one – where the pitch was to blame for Arsenal losing to Manchester United. According to Arsene Wenger at any rate.

The Frenchman cited the Old Trafford playing surface as the real reason why his side underperformed in one of their most important games of the season so far.

"Eh Wilf, what do you reckon young Mr Wenger would make of our pitch?": Derby captain Johnny Morris and Wilf Mannion before a game at the Baseball Ground in the 1950s

“It was a very bad pitch,” said Wenger. “The technical quality suffered as a result  … if I ask you do you want a good pitch or a bad one, what do you say?”

Funny that. Having watched the game – which, admittedly, never lived up to expectations – I thought it was simply that Manchester United were the better team.

But what Wenger was implying was that Arsenal are a better team than United but had been dragged down to their level by the playing surface.

“The pitch here is not good enough to play good football,” he told his after-match press conference.

Not good enough to play good football? Wait a minute. Didn’t Brian Clough’s team produce stunningly good football on a Baseball Ground pitch that resembled winter on the Somme? And there is no comparison with that old mud heap and the conditions at Old Trafford a few weeks ago.

Ankle-deep by mid-season, grassless and bone-hard come April, the Baseball Ground should have taxed players of even the highest calibre. Yet, week after week, Clough’s team – and Dave Mackay’s side that emulated its achievements by winning the Football League championship, as the top flight then was – entertained us with some wonderful football. Goodness knows what they could have achieved on today’s bowling green surfaces.

Imagine Kevin Hector skipping around a modern pitch, weaving his magic with a modern ball and wearing modern boots.

Talking of footwear, there is a lovely story that the former Rams player and manager, Tim Ward used to tell about the day, back in the 1940s, when Derby’s trainer, Dave Willis, picked up the boots belonging to the great Peter Doherty.

The Rams were getting changed before a match against Manchester United at the Baseball Ground. It was mid-January and the pitch comprised, as usual, of about six inches of cloying, foul-smelling mud covered with a liberal helping of sand. Where there wasn’t sand, there were puddles.

Willis held up Doherty’s boots and showed them around the dressing-room.

“Just look at these,” he told the Rams players. “They’re a disgrace. Peter, you’ve got three studs missing out of this one, and four missing out of this one. How do you expect to go out there and do well?”

Peter the Great just shrugged: “Well, Dave, if you can play, then you can play.”

End of conversation.

Years later, when asked about that infamous Baseball Ground pitch, Charlie George told the interviewer: “I liked playing there. The conditions never bothered me. They were never really a problem for me.”

Again – if you can play, then you can play.

Frank Upton – “Frank the Tank” to his fans – was just about the toughest nut, the strongest player, ever to play for Derby County, but even he agreed that, in the 1950s, the Baseball Ground pitch “must have been about the worst in the Football League”.

Yet Frank also enjoyed playing on it, albeit for different reason to the consummately skilled Doherty and George. “Well, I never looked on it as hard work. Just as a job that had to be done.

“Having said that, it must be wonderful to play on the pitches they play on now. It must be a treat to go out there today.”

Except if you’re Arsenal playing at Old Trafford, apparently.

Anyway, thanks for the memory, Norm.