BY PETE SPENCER
A while back I wrote an article about players who played mainly in the 1970’s and were considered ‘Mavericks’. These were players who were sublimely talented, seemed to find football all so simple, yet had various flaws in their personalities. These guys were on the fringe of what was considered ‘the norm’. They rarely trained, rarely followed any pre-conditioned path and certainly didn’t conform to any standard route to success.
By and large these players were a product of the 1970’s where they were lauded, worshipped and given more rope than most other, less talented teammates. In an age where the game was more enjoyed than analysed and stats weren’t invented, people would happily spend money simply to watch one of these demi-gods and as long as they saw one piece of skill, they went home happy. There are still people today who talk of moments of magic from the likes of Stan Bowles, Tony Currie, Rodney Marsh etc, and in the days where the majority of football matches weren’t on TV, then you only had memories and eye-witness accounts to fall back on. These days with games analysed to the nth degree, we have become less and less willing to put up with 80 minutes of dross for 10 minutes of magic. It is no longer acceptable for a winger to hug the touchline in the opposition’s half, he is now expected to track back and often judged on his defensive abilities rather than attacking ones.
Looking back over the-almost 40 years I have been following football, the most dramatic difference seems to have come in the area of training and the use of science in sport. This depth of change is such it is very unlikely to ever be reversed and so you’re left wondering where we go from here. It is an aspect of life in the 21st century where we have this endless pursuit of perfection, and footballers are caught up in the middle of it.
Thinking about the progress and developments in sports science and the effect it can have on a player’s performance there are three issues arise –
a) You cannot compare different eras. How good would Charlton, Best or Maradona have been with today’s support and techniques, not to mention quality of pitches?
b) We will never see ‘The Maverick’ again. Never again will a club jeopardise their investment. The players are too valuable an asset to the club that they are at the stage where they cannot consider allowing the player to make a mess of things.
c) What preparation are we giving these players for life after football? How will they ever know what to do when the guttering is damaged, or kids need picking up from school or they need to cook for themselves or open bank accounts? If everything is done for you then how do you deal with life when that support goes? Football is only interested in the player at the time he is a player. Once he has retired he is no longer an asset to the club, so why should they bother as they have other players to bother about?
Sports science has probably been the biggest change to the sport I can remember. The quality of pitches and weight of footballs has improved some aspects; notably the speed the game can be played at, but little has had such an effect as the science of managing a player’s health and fitness. From the moment a game finishes, players work on nutrition, rest and recuperation. For the coaches this first day after the match is known as ‘matchday minus 1’. Recovery is carefully managed for the next two days after a match and there is a clear defined concentration on recovery rates. Recovery is considered a very important part of a player’s condition. These physios will manage where a player should, and will be, physically. They will be able to judge from a few days before matchday whether the player is fit enough to make the match. Everything is monitored from heart rate onwards. Players even wear GPS so that the coaches can monitor all this, with particular emphasis on ‘load’ and ‘exertion’. Compare this to years ago and many players could fool management into their true condition and be able to play through injury. In years gone by a standard way of dealing with injuries would be to give players a cortisone injection to help them through the match. Liverpool hard man of the 1960’s and 1970’s, Tommy Smith, had so many injections that once he finished playing, he paid the price for as he can hardly walk now. In the 1980’s Bryan Robson, who always seemed to be injured, had to have many injections just to get him on the pitch.
Players’ diets will also be monitored and controlled with many players following a regime of eating their main meal three hours before kick-off. That works fine if kick-off is 3pm but when it is a mid-day start then players have the dilemma as to what should they do about their lunchtime meal. Again this is where the coach comes in and the player is told what is best for them. They will be given the right foods to eat to aid their recovery rates. Players are given every detail of what they should be eating and when.
Many clubs have introduced equipment which will aid the physical development of their players as well as improve the recovery rates. One piece of equipment is a Zero Gravity Suit. These are used on treadmills. The player gets into the suit and air is blown into it to regulate the amount of load the player’s body takes on running. If a player needs to have any load removed then the suit will be filled completely so the player can run with all weight removed through his feet, legs and joints, giving the feeling of zero gravity. The result is the player gets all the physical benefits of a run without the downside of any weight through the body. How Tommy Smith would’ve benefitted from the Zero Gravity Suit. In addition to this there is injury recovery technology. Hyperbaric chambers supply high level of oxygen to enable a muscle to heal faster. They also regulate hot & cold conditions using contrast therapy with pools and Jacuzzi. These techniques have gone so far as to see Manchester United employ an eye coach.
Nutrition was one aspect which improved players’ performances and even lengthened some players careers. Go back to Arsene Wenger’s first few years as Arsenal manager and there is no doubt he prolonged the careers of Tony Adams, Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn through a combination of the right nutrition and physical monitoring. Fitness techniques and regimes can often make all the difference. Use Steven Gerrard at Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers as an example. Last season, up to the Newcastle game – the 35th of the season – he played every minute of every match. The coaching and fitness regime which Rodgers installed has meant Liverpool’s star player has been available for the team more often than at any other stage of his career, and all this when he moves into the latter stages of that career. Previous managers may be forgiven for wondering how much more successful they could’ve been had they had the services of Gerrard for a lot longer during a season than they did. This has also given rise to Gerrard now becoming an integral part and a driving force towards their assault on the Premier League title. He has hardly been able to play such a fundamental part of proceedings at the end of the season for several years.
In addition to this, how much work is done on the mind? So much preparation is done for the body to be in the best physical position it can be, but if a player isn’t quite on it – there’s not a lot you can do. Brendan Rodgers has brought in the renowned psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters and he has made a difference to the belief of the team, but at the same time combined with Rodgers own calm demeanour, to keep the players feet on the ground. Peters may be the only person providing this level of support for clubs and it could end up with making all the difference in the end if Liverpool win the title in May.
So this is why I believe comparison of players from different eras is impossible. Often there is a debate as to whether Messi is better than Maradona, but Messi plays on pitches so pristine and solid, whereas Maradona played in an era of mud and bumps. Messi has never had to deal with the tackling Maradona had to either. But how much better a player would Maradona have been with the discipline instilled in someone like Messi, and the nutrition knowledge and an understanding of the effects of recovery rates?
What about players such as Bobby Charlton, George Best and Ferenc Puskas? They played when footballs and boots were heavier and there certainly wasn’t the science around shirts and kit. The only way you can judge players, in my opinion, is how they rate against players of their own era. Given all the techniques available to everyone at the time you can only really say there is a level playing field if you consider how good each player is with the same set of tools. For example, Ian Rush was the greatest goalscorer of his generation and yet Luis Suarez scores better looking goals. The arrival of the supreme athlete has perhaps seen the demise of the supremely talented player, although todays physical techniques have brought in players who are able to play in many positions and are maybe more versatile and flexible.
These techniques are as far removed from the ones employed during the heyday of the Maverick as you can get. Nowadays a player has to be an athlete first and then a footballer. It has been said “if you are not an athlete, you have to be one helluva player”.
This might explain to decline in standards of defending, for example. Many defenders are mainly athletes and you can see many of the decisions they make often lead to goals conceded. Of course, the game has got faster and this too is down to the fitness and athleticism of the players, but defenders like Jamie Carragher had to become very good with their decision-making to make up for their lack of pace. Modern football has probably allowed players like Anton Ferdinand to have a top flight career when his defensive abilities are second to his athletic ability.
To use another example, if we go back to 1980’s, and look at the great Liverpool teams of that era. Alan Hansen has said “we would do a bit of warm-up in the changing room, may have kicked a ball on the pitch for a bit, but then I’d be sat there reading a paper or something. Then five minutes before kick-off we’d be ready for the game” Mark Lawrenson has also attested to this by adding “they tried sending us out 30 minutes before a game but nobody liked it so they ditched that idea”. This seems remarkable from a side which was one of the finest teams English football has ever seen.
Look at things from the club’s point of view and they will merely say they are protecting their investment. It is often said the players have so much power these days, but do they? Or are they given big contracts so clubs can control every aspect of their lives and behaviour? Players may believe they have the power but they are not allowed to think for themselves. Clubs seem to fully understand if they leave the player to make up his own mind and decide for himself, he is likely to make poor choices. The clubs look to get the best out of the players as long as they serve a purpose for the club. Nothing is left to chance. Manchester United will make more in shirt sales by employing a player of Wayne Rooney’s calibre than Queens Park Rangers will have ever made in ticket sales from selecting Stan Bowles in their team.
This brings me to my third ‘issue’ I have with all this. What happens to the player once football and football clubs have had enough of them? Are players taught well enough to prepare themselves for life after football? Is this why plenty of players struggle to adapt later on and often fall into depression or addiction as they strive to replace the buzz of playing but without the discipline of someone telling them when and how to stop? Or do they stay in football? From Harry Redknapp’s trial, it was his defence that he was incredibly inept at dealing with everyday chores, and needed others to do things for him. Yet in the real world, those people are disturbingly unprepared for living in today’s society.
One thing seems pretty certain is that we have seen the golden age of the maverick and will never see the like again.
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