In a two-part series, PETE SPENCER celebrates those special talents of yesteryear – the ones we paid our admission fee just to see. Mavericks – we salute you.
Football has changed a lot over the time I have been watching it. I’m not one to go round claiming it was better in my day, but it is a simple fact the game has changed almost beyond recognition. But then so has society. Things considered acceptable years ago are just not permitted these days. We are, of course, talking about the late 1960’s and 1970’s when ‘The Maverick’ reigned supreme. Some of their careers even boiled over into the early 1980’s.
Football was less intense and undoubtedly less professional. But this opened things up for ‘The Maverick’ to exist. Many clubs had a maverick and some even took the brave choice to employ two. But the maverick would polarise opinion, leaving him to be loved and adored by the fans yet he would be relied upon, dropped and generally misunderstood by managers and chairmen.
The Maverick would often be regarded today as a ‘Number 10’. The man who everything goes through, who continually comes up with the creativity and ingenuity required for the team to get one over the opponents. But therein lies one of the flaws of ‘The Maverick’, and believe me these guys were flawed. What if ‘The Maverick’ just doesn’t really feel like it today? What if the magic just isn’t flowing? After all, a great musician doesn’t feel like writing a classic every day.
Employing and relying on a maverick could often lead to his teammates becoming lazy or perhaps desperate, as whenever the team was in trouble or losing, these ‘heroes’ would be relied upon a little too much to come up with something special. Rather than have players who could think for themselves, often teams ended up with players who relied on their maverick to do the thinking for them.
Of course, this wasn’t true in every case and many players became inspired playing alongside a ridiculously talented and skilful player. But there is little doubt many average players and many ‘less fashionable’ clubs benefitted greatly from ‘The Maverick’ to the point of having the finest periods of their history whilst these ‘flawed geniuses’ were in their midst.
Ultimately, this would lead to their downfall as increasingly pressured coaches would consider them ‘luxuries’, ‘fancy dans’, or put it another way – the guy who could make or break your career. But with pressure comes a tendency to minimise risk and so these ‘freaks’ were considered too risky for a manager to have in their team and they became surplus to requirements.
The other nail in the coffin was the advent of proper training techniques as well as nutrition and fitness regimes. So perhaps we have Arsene Wenger to blame for the demise of ‘The Maverick’ or the flair player. Like many studious coaches, Wenger had realised he had far more chance of his own, and his team’s success if he sacrificed The Maverick’s brilliance every 3-4 games, for greater consistency from more of his players. If the team’s success in a season was 50% down to ‘The Maverick’, then having five players increase their own performance by 10% might just avoid a drop in results. The benefits of having more players think for themselves, and an increase in the chances of two or three players becoming stars, far outweighed the reliance on one man who may, or may not produce the goods, and in whose hands the fortunes of the coach could be held.
‘The Maverick’ was like a drug. He attracted fans, teammates and managers alike as we all were desperate for one last thrill of the impossible, the unlikely or just the simply outrageous. Some would blindly believe these guys could continue to weave their magic, despite evidence to the contrary. Some clubs were complete saps for ‘The Maverick’, QPR being a prime example. Football wasn’t alone in attracting and encouraging mavericks. Cricket had Ian Botham, tennis had Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors, snooker had Alex Higgins and darts had Eric Bristow and Jocky Wilson. You have even had motorcycling with its very own version, Barry Sheene. These were all people for whom the game seemed to come to them so easily and yet they viewed training for their chosen career, as a bore, a chore to be sneered at and publicly too.
So, what was it about ‘The Maverick’ that became so absorbing and impossible to enjoy? What was their particular brand of sorcery which had fans up and down the country eating out of their hands? The references to magic aren’t out of place here. These guys could do things with the ball that we hadn’t really seen before, at least not in the English leagues. Nowadays, it seems the first thing kids learn to do is keepy-uppys, yet back then this was unheard of. If you can get a clip of the full coverage of England’s famous thrashing at the hands of Hungary in 1953, there is a bit at the start just before kick-off when Puskas is juggling the ball in the centre circle. Commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme was waxing lyrical about the magic feet of Puskas.
Even by the 1970’s, we didn’t really see too many players do this, mainly on account of ball technique not being considered important in England, as well as the condition of the pitches and the construction of the footballs and boots at the time. The other thing which set these colossi apart was their vision. It was said of many of them that their first few moves were in their head, so by the time the ball reached them, they’d already worked out what they were going to do and where everyone else was. As if having perfect vision wasn’t enough, they had the ability to find their target with a pinpoint pass. ‘Landing the ball on a sixpence’ was a phrase often used to describe their unerring ability to land the ball on precisely the spot they’d envisaged in their head, and with just the right amount of weight on the pass to allow a less talented teammate a much smoother passage towards goal.
Their ability to take teams apart with a simple pass made them heavily marked and in an era of tough tackling they were also ‘marked’ men. Many sides had a hard man whose job was to act as spoiler to the other sides build-up play, but this was seen by ‘The Maverick’ as yet more competition. Often matches became a contest of whether the hard man could put ‘The Maverick’ out of the game or whether ‘The Maverick’ could make a monkey of the thug by putting him on his backside. On one such occasion, maverick-extraordinaire, George Best was up against Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris. On a muddy pitch, Best was a master of dribbling and he soon put Harris on the seat of his pants just with a wiggle of the hips. Not content with beating him once, Best turned and went back for some more just to beat him again and rub the Chelsea full-back’s nose in it.
Competition was the drug these magicians craved. It was almost as if they had a burning desire to prove how good they could be for their examination on matchday when they had not bothered to revise for it all week. Sometimes ‘The Maverick’ would get bored, mainly through lack of competition so you can understand Best’s need for sport with his toying of Harris.
Stan Bowles was another who could do it whenever he felt like it, but the task for managers and coaches was to try and motivate him to do it on a more regular basis than he really wanted to. For Bowles, his peak probably came during QPR’s championship-chasing season 1975-76. He was irresistible through most of that season and manager, Dave Sexton, may have hit upon the ideal carrot for his maverick. Bowles found that the prize of winning a trophy kept him interested. When the side then broke up and Sexton moved on, he lost interest.
Boredom appeared to be the sole disease of which these complex individuals were susceptible to. Constantly requiring a challenge, or at least stimulation, they would often be found in the throes of a public house, betting shop or leggy model, or indeed all three. Stan Bowles was a classic example of this. Brian Clough signed him for Nottingham Forest in 1979 after Bowles had fallen out with Tommy Docherty at QPR, but even ‘Ole Big ‘ead’ became exasperated claiming, “If Stanley could pass a betting shop as well as he could pass a ball, he’d be world class’.
Society probably made these guys worse as it lauded their exploits, no matter how bad. Today, we have all sorts of moral judgements we like to compare footballers against, and maybe the huge salaries they now enjoy has given us that right. But back in those days footballers were closer to their supporters than they are now. Often, you could relate to footballers back then as they often seemed like those you grew up with, or could imagine having played with at your local club. But these mavericks just had that extra class. They could drink more than us, could bed more women than us and could find a teammate from 40 yards simply with a flick of their ankle. Their personality was magnetic and they were always the bloke we wanted to be, even if we weren’t prepared to admit it publicly. But of course deep down we knew they were destroying themselves. Just like rock stars, we’re quite happy to watch people do things we’d never attempt ourselves, and tell them that we really admired them, but secretly many of us just do not possess that self-destruct gene. On the other hand, few of us really excel at anything without practice and after all, perhaps this was the bit we were most in awe of. These guys had tremendous constitutions and could withstand burning the candle at both ends.
It could be argued they wasted their talent as they could’ve all gone onto achieve so much more. But at least their careers are littered with magic moments living long in the memory. Think about it, what would you rather? An honest pro that turns out every week for years but nobody really notices, or the loose cannon who has one or two moments remembered by many for years? These mavericks put bums on seats. You’d pay your entrance fee simply for a glimpse of genius. There would be a buzz around the ground as soon as any these players took to the pitch. The crowd expectation levels would go up as soon as they got the ball. We all arrived at the ground never knowing if today was the day you would see a touch of genius, but all hoping it would be. We all wanted the chance to be able to say, “we were there when….”. These are the guys for whom stories of their conquests became bigger and larger and more fantastic the more times they were told. Unfortunately, there isn’t as much footage of their achievements as there would be if they were around today, and so it’s worth asking people who were around at the time how good they were.
Robin Friday at Reading is one example. He seemed dangerously out of control, yet fabulously skilled too. He was sacked by Reading and Cardiff for his misdemeanours and in his final match against Brighton, he kicked Mark Lawrenson in the face and once sent off, he left the ground, but not before breaking into Brighton’s changing room and leaving a rather unpleasant package in Lawro’s kit-bag. He would often be too drunk or stoned to train during the week, yet put in match-winning performances on a Saturday. Clive Thomas, the World Cup referee, claimed Friday scored the best goal he’d ever seen, but ultimately the man’s passion towards self-destruction got the better of him and his career lasted a mere five years. If you have never heard of him don’t worry, but it’s worth searching for his biography, suitably entitled “The Greatest Player You Never Saw”.
One aspect about those days in which ‘The Maverick’ prospered was that society was much more willing to accept mediocrity or inconsistency than they are today. If ‘The Maverick’ didn’t perform in a match then his supporters would say “if he didn’t do it today, he’s bound to do it next week”. Visiting teams would often be grateful for finding ‘The Maverick’ on his off-day, but knowing their luck would eventually run out as you just never knew when these guys were going to take you apart.
As the 1970’s reached an end we were just left with people such as Tony Currie and Terry Curran as football and society were less prepared to put up with The Maverick’s excesses. During the 1980’s players emerged such as Glenn Hoddle, Chris Waddle, Paul Gascoigne and John Barnes who would also fill stadia as well as frustrate when expected to produce the unexpected far too often. But these players knew the value of training and perhaps were keener to keep a cleaner public profile. Many players drank far too much throughout the 80’s, yet little of it became public knowledge….(to be continued)
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